NIJ Director Dr. Nancy La Vigne shares how her extensive experience in criminal justice research shapes her vision for NIJ under her tenure. Beth Pearsall, Managing Editor of the NIJ Journal, hosts the conversation. Read the transcript.
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SPEAKER 1: Welcome to Justice Today, the official podcast of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, where we shine a light on cutting-edge research and practices and offer an in-depth look at what we're doing to meet the biggest public safety challenges of our time. Join us as we explore how funding, science, and technology help us achieve strong communities.
BETH PEARSALL: Welcome, everyone. I'm Beth Pearsall, the managing editor of the NIJ Journal, and I'll be your host for today's show. Today, I'm joined by a very special guest, Dr. Nancy La Vigne, who on May 9th was sworn in as the Director of the National Institute of Justice. Dr. La Vigne is a nationally recognized criminal justice policy expert and former non-profit executive, whose expertise ranges from policing and corrections reform to reentry, criminal justice technologies, and evidence-based criminal justice practices. She joins NIJ from the Council on Criminal Justice, where she served as a senior policy fellow and directed the council's task force on policing. Prior to that, she directed the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute over the course of a decade and served as the Executive Director of the congressionally mandated bipartisan Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections reform. Dr. La Vigne is here to share with us some of what she hopes to accomplish here at NIJ as head of the Justice Department's Research, Development, and Evaluation agency. Well, welcome, Dr. La Vigne. Thank you so much for joining me today.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Thanks, Beth. It's great to be here.
BETH PEARSALL: So let's start off with how you're doing. You've been on the job for a few months now. How's it going?
NANCY LA VIGNE: Yes, it's actually been three months to the day, not that I'm counting. [Laughter] And there's so much to learn in this job. It is truly drinking from the proverbial fire hose. That's such an overused phrase, but the imagery just really feels right to me. Trying to spend my time doing so many different things: certainly, meeting with and getting to know the staff; understanding the wide research portfolio that NIJ covers; reaching out to federal and philanthropic partners; connecting with the field, of course, associations and the research community; and, of course, reviewing research proposals, which we’re actually right in the midst of funding decisions. So it takes a lot of time and care to go through the applications and give them the attention they deserve.
BETH PEARSALL: Mm-hmm. That sounds like a lot to balance and prioritize, you know. How are you able to navigate all that?
NANCY LA VIGNE: Well, to be honest, I could probably sit at my computer all day, responding to emails, and going to meetings that I didn't even initiate. And that would be more than a full-time job. So my strategy is to nudge my strategic plans and partnerships forward as best I can, you know, having goals like, “Today, I'm going to do this…” or, “This week, I'm going to do that,” just to make sure that I'm not just in reactive mode all the time. And I'm also trying to keep my strategic priorities front of mind in everything I do.
BETH PEARSALL: I'm glad you brought that up. I know you've put forth several strategic priorities. Can you share more about what those are for our listeners?
NANCY LA VIGNE: Sure. I have lots of strategic priorities. It was a real challenge to boil them down to just a handful. But my first priority is to promote what I'm calling inclusive research. And I don't know if that's a new term. I don't want to claim credit for making it up. It has its roots in participatory research to some degree, and it consists of four key components. One is to make sure that researchers are learning from the true experts on whatever topic it is they're studying. So, those are the people who are experiencing the issue or the practitioners who are working on the issue. And it occurs to me that, as researchers, we often feel that we are the experts. And that's true, but I feel like we're the experts of the research methodology. We're not the experts of the topics we study. Those are the people on the ground. So we really need to engage them in the research process. That includes staffing projects with people who have that professional and lived experience and it includes compensating people for their time; oftentimes, we do focus groups--with community members and others--and we don't compensate them appropriately. And it even means using inclusive language that avoids labeling and stigmatizing.
BETH PEARSALL: So are you saying that you want to lift up more qualitative research instead of quantitative research?
NANCY LA VIGNE: Oh, I'm glad you asked that. No, not at all. They're both important. And, in fact, I'm promoting a mixed methods approach, something I'm calling “numbers plus narratives.” The numbers are important because--it's empirical evidence, but without the narratives, without engaging with people who are closest to the problem, we don't really understand the context, and that context is all-important.
BETH PEARSALL: So can you provide an example of what that looks like?
NANCY LA VIGNE: Sure. I mean, we all know qualitative research and ethnographic research aims to hear from the people who are experiencing the issue. With inclusive research, this need not be solely qualitative. It could be a survey where you engage with the people you're aiming to survey and crafting the questions. We don't usually do that as researchers. Usually when we set out to create a new survey instrument, the first thing we do is to go back and see who's done similar research, and is there an instrument we can crib from and adapt rather than going to the people who know the topic best. So, for example, a few years ago, I did a study with colleagues trying to get a better sense of what people who live in the highest crime and most heavily policed communities, how they feel about police and their experiences with public safety and how they are policed. And so, we went to them to help craft that survey, and also involved patrol officers who were assigned to that community, asking them: How do you think we should ask people about the job you're doing? So it's that kind of engagement that I think can really make a difference.
BETH PEARSALL: Great. That's a really great example to help the listeners understand what you're talking about. And I really do like that term, numbers plus narrative, just to show that it doesn't have to be one or the other. So in your opinion-- or what I'm hearing is that inclusive research should be done by everyone. So how do you intend to promote it?
NANCY LA VIGNE: Yeah, that's a great question. I think part of it is about educating the field on the importance and value of taking an inclusive research approach. I think it's also important to lift up examples about how research is more useful, more powerful, and more impactful when you do engage with people on the ground. And I also think it's helpful to promote more interdisciplinary research teams, and this is actually another one of my priorities. I'm a criminal justice-trained person, right, so I know crime and justice issues well in the criminal justice system and the administration of justice. You know, that's what I've been doing my entire career. And, you know, I've been trained mostly as a sociologist in that regard. But there's all kinds of other disciplines that have entered our space. And they're becoming much more prominent. I’m thinking specifically about economists who are using some pretty cutting-edge methodologies. Highly rigorous synthetic control groups, for example. And yet how much do they know about the criminal justice system? Maybe they should be teaming with people like sociologists, or perhaps social workers, who, you know, really have been doing a lot of this inclusive research more than any other discipline I can think of. So I think there's real value in bringing together different researchers, academics, and perspectives across disciplines and experiences.
BETH PEARSALL: Okay, so just to kind of highlight that that main point. So, inclusive research might be best accomplished by researchers with a mix of backgrounds.
NANCY LA VIGNE: That's right.
BETH PEARSALL: Okay.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Working in team…
BETH PEARSALL: Perfect.
NANCY LA VIGNE: …in partnership. Yeah.
BETH PEARSALL: So how does this relate to another one of your priorities, which is to promote research that applies what you're calling a racial equity lens?
NANCY LA VIGNE: Yeah, so I think to be inclusive, you have to be aware of issues of racial inequality in the criminal justice system, and we need to recognize the issues of race, racial, and ethnic, and other types of disparities permeating our society, and--of course, for me, the justice system, in so many ways based on our nation's history: structural inequalities, implicit biases, the whole, the whole nine yards. And in the context of research, I think recognizes—recognizing these issues of racial inequality is more than just throwing a race variable into a statistical model, which we're really good at doing. “Oh, we accounted for race. We put it in a model, and then we look and see whether the coefficient is significant or not.” And then if it is, it's like, “Okay, you know, Black people experience this more or less than other people.” And that's just not sufficient. First off, it doesn't recognize that that race variable is serving as a proxy for a lot of other stuff, right? It could be biases in the way arrests are made or where police do their policing, right? It could be other types of issues that we're not measuring as researchers like issues of lack of opportunity and structural inequality. So I think we have to be a lot more mindful about how we think about race in our statistical models but also just be more front and center in making issues of racial justice part and parcel with our research on criminal justice writ large.
BETH PEARSALL: Great. So is this something that you'll be looking for in research proposals?
NANCY LA VIGNE: Absolutely. And, in fact, even before I joined NIJ, I was so pleased to see that the W.E.B. Du Bois Program came back. It took a hiatus over--during the last administration. And it's a program that was in place even when I was at NIJ some two decades ago, and a really important one because it supports research on the intersection of race and crime and violence in the administration of justice but doesn't dictate any topics within that very large description, and it has two components. One is to support scholars who are pretty seasoned researchers to conduct research that has a mentoring component to it, where they can mentor less experienced researchers. And then it has a fellowship component. And that's specifically for researchers who are early in their careers.
BETH PEARSALL: That's really great to hear. So I do want to shift focus for a bit. You know, each NIJ director brings his or her own views about evaluation research to the job. One of your priorities is to elevate implementation science, particularly in the area of technology evaluation. Can you talk a little bit more about that and what that means?
NANCY LA VIGNE: Yes. Thanks for raising that. First of all, evaluation is NIJ's bread and butter in many respects. When you think about it, it spans across all of NIJ’s social and behavioral science investments, as well as its technology investments and investigative sciences, forensic sciences. You know, but we do a lot of basic research, but evaluation research is predominantly what we support. And--I feel like there's a pendulum that swings back and forth with different NIJ directors, and it's like, you know, “How rigorous can you be?” and, you know, “Randomized controlled trials, or RCTs, are the be-all and end-all versus, you know, other perspectives.” And I feel like that’s a false choice, a false dichotomy. I think it's important to do as rigorous evaluation methodologies as we possibly can. I also think that there are times where RCTs are not the appropriate method to answer a particular research question. I think the basic research where we're trying to understand the why and how of things that is not evaluative but foundational for understanding new, emerging issues and things that are affecting different populations.
And then comes implementation science. So that's about not just measuring whether something works but how well it was implemented to begin with. It's measuring implementation fidelity to know whether the program was implemented the way it was intended to. Was the right population reached? Did they receive the programming as intended? Were there hiccups in terms of instructional issues, or if the prison was on lockdown or, you know, something else went wrong. And all of these pieces of information are important to understanding and interpreting your impact findings because you could have the best RCT in the world, but if that RCT finds that a program doesn't work and you don't have a strong implementation component to your evaluation, you don't know whether the thing didn't work or it didn't work because it wasn't implemented well. And something I'd like to add to that is a notion called action research that's been around for ages, since the ‘70s, if not earlier, and it's taken hold a bit but I think merits more attention, and that's having researchers evaluate not just the implementation as it happens but also feeding back that information to the program providers to help them improve the program in real time. And by doing that, you're helping create a better program that has a better likelihood of yielding an impact that can be measured.
BETH PEARSALL: Right. So, across all of NIJ’s investments, you want to ensure that the research looks not just at the impact but how that impact happened.
NANCY LA VIGNE: That's right.
BETH PEARSALL: So speaking of impact, your fifth priority--and I know this because I'm taking it from the NIJ’s website, where listeners can go to learn more. It's NIJ.OJP.gov. Your fifth priority is about ensuring that research evidence leads to change in the field. Can you share more about that?
NANCY LA VIGNE: Sure thing. So this is where the rubber meets the road, right? Why are we in this space? Why are we generating knowledge? We’re generating knowledge, at NIJ anyway, to make improvements, to promote more public safety, to promote more equity in the justice system. And yet, I think that's where we have the biggest problems. We've come a very, very long way in making our research findings more accessible. And then that dates back to many prior NIJ research directors. I think about Chips Stewart. I think when I first got in the field, Chips Stewart was the first NIJ director I knew, and he was big on research practitioner partnerships that promoted more applied research, which I feel like, you know, the more applied it is, the more likely it's going to lead to change. And then Jeremy Travis, my longtime mentor, is a master in communications and really brought that to the role as NIJ director, and then John Laub, more recently, made a point of what he called translational criminology. So, you can see that evolution in NIJ’s publications, how they've evolved over time. And, actually you know this better than anybody, being the editor of the NIJ Journal.
BETH PEARSALL: Yes, with the “Journal,” we've worked really hard on making the content more accessible for our readers to really translate what the research means for the field.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Well, and it shows. And I actually should have said award-winning NIJ Journal because you all just received an award for, I think it was, the most recent volume on Children and Youth.
BETH PEARSALL: Oh, thank you.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Yeah, it was a terrific volume. So anyway, we're doing a really good job of translating, but I think we can do a much better job of synthesizing research across all of our investments. We do that a lot. I mean, you know that because you do it in articles in the “NIJ Journal,” but I think there's more to be done in that space. I think it was my second week on the job that the horrific shooting in Uvalde occurred. And my first question is, “Okay, what do we know about mass shootings in K- 12 schools?” And, you know, we knew a lot, but it was in several different places. So, we've brought all that information together in a publication called “Five Facts on Preventing Mass Shootings in K-12 schools.” And I imagine that will be in print by the time this podcast airs. And so, you know, doing more synthesis work, I think, is important, but I still wonder even when we summarize better, translate better, synthesize better, are we getting the information out there in a way that leads to change?
And so my last priority is what I call “evidence to action.” How can we get the evidence to lead to changes on the ground in the field? And what do we know from the science? What research is out there that can tell us more how police chiefs and correctional leaders and judges and fill-in-the-blank, how they learn about evidence, what they believe is truly evidence, and what leads them to make changes, and also how do those changes, those directives, how successful are they in changing the practices of managers and line staff? I think there's so much to learn there, including in the medical community. I feel like they've gone a long way in figuring out basic things, like, you know, wash your hands up to the elbows for 30 seconds, right? They have a sign to remind them, but, you know, how did that practice become so commonplace? Or the practice of labeling the right limb to perform surgery on, or these various checklists. So, I think there's a lot we can learn, well beyond the criminal justice system and criminal justice research, for getting that research to yield to action on the ground.
BETH PEARSALL: Mm-hmm. It sounds like a very inclusive research approach to all of these, all of these issues that are out there.
NANCY LA VIGNE: It is, because we need to hear from the experts in order to develop these strategies to get the action we seek.
BETH PEARSALL: So, great. As we wrap up, I'm interested in hearing your perceptions on both NIJ and the Office of Justice Programs having returned, like you said, after over two decades away. What do you see that's changed, and what remains the same?
NANCY LA VIGNE: Oh, well, you know, it's been a minute. Uh, so much has changed. Everything used to be in paper form, lots and lots and lots of paper. And so things are now very streamlined. There’s certainly more technology of all sorts that helps us do our jobs better. But what hasn't changed is the staff and the dedication to excellence. I really wasn't sure what I was going to walk into when I started a few months ago, and it's been such a delight. I've been doing one-on-one meetings with each and every staff person, learning who they are, how long they've been there, what do they do, what’s important to them, what their areas of expertise are. And they're just such professionals and such experts in their fields, and I'm not just talking about the science staff; the communications staff, our grants management people, but there's so many people that make NIJ operate so well and with such intentionality, so that's been a real delight to return to the agency that I know and love so well, and to know I have such a strong and deep bench from which to draw.
BETH PEARSALL: That's great. It sounds like there's already a strong foundation from which to help accomplish your goals.
NANCY LA VIGNE: I feel extremely fortunate, and I also have a tremendous collection of peers, the directors of the other OJP agencies, and, of course, the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Amy Solomon. We're so aligned in our vision, and we're so supportive of each other and truly collaborative. So it's truly an inspiring place to be.
BETH PEARSALL: Well, that sounds like a great note to end on. So thank you, Dr. La Vigne, for joining me today. It's been a great conversation.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Thanks. It's been my pleasure.
BETH PEARSALL: And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. Stay tuned for additional episodes from NIJ.
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