27th Annual Reckless-Dinitz Lecture

Featuring Nancy Rodriguez, PhD — Director, National Institute of Justice


“Strengthening Justice in the U.S.: The Impact of Scientific Research”

Criminal Justice Research Center Presentation- April 22, 2016

By Katie Andraschko, CJRC Undergraduate Intern

Director Nancy RodriguezNancy Rodriguez, Director of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), was the most recent speaker at the Criminal Justice Research Center’s Annual Walter C. Reckless and Simon Dinitz Memorial Lecture.  At this event she discussed how scientific research has impacted criminal justice progress and advancements across the nation.  Dr. Rodriguez was appointed director of the NIJ by President Obama in 2015.  The National Institute of Justice is the research component of the Department of Justice. 

Dr. Rodriguez began her lecture by describing the National Institute of Justice and her role as the director.  In this position, she does not advance any policy or voice her personal position on issues.  The NIJ is an independent, objective institute that provides knowledge-based scientific research on criminal justice issues.  As Director of the National Institute of Justice, Rodriguez oversees all research supported by this agency which limits her time to conduct research of her own. Before becoming director, Dr. Rodriguez examined how families are affected by a familial incarceration.  While most people believe incarceration destroys the family, there is also evidence of parental incarceration having limited or even positive effects on families (e.g., replacing an unstable parent with a more stable guardian).  She believes that this was one of their more surprising research findings due to its complexity and paradoxical results.  These findings on the mixed effects of familial incarceration displayed the heterogeneity in both individuals and families and exposes the misconception that everyone is affected by social issues in the same way.

During her talk, she acknowledged certain public safety challenges that our nation is currently facing; this includes the strained relationship between law enforcements and communities, mass incarceration, the overuse of solitary confinement and high prevalence of campus sexual assault.  Rodriguez uses these four key examples to showcase how true policy reform and innovation depends on empirical research, and how NIJ’s multidisciplinary approach to crime and justice policy has helped improve the status of justice in the United States.  

According to Director Rodriguez, the bottom line is that the NIJ funds research aimed at solving important criminal justice concerns in this nation.  In the challenge of building a bridge between law enforcement and communities, the NIJ has supported research on the federal, state, and local levels.  They use research to provide evidence on effective policing strategies.  For instance research is currently examining how body worn cameras affect policing behaviors.  In the past four decades the incarcerated population has more than tripled.  There is increased attention payed to this issue by news media and politicians. Research is also being conducted on the uses of solitary confinement because of concerns about overuse and the negative repercussions it has on inmates. Research needs to be done to examine when solitary confinement should be used and when it is beneficial or detrimental.  The NIJ is also forward-thinking in their approach to examine the safety and wellness of inmates due to the high levels of self-harm and suicide that occurs in prisons and especially in local jails.  Recently NIJ funded a 4 million dollar, seven-year study called S.P.I.R.I.T to help understand tactics to prevent suicide in prison and jails. 

Rodriguez explained the importance of the National Institute of Justice responding to current events.  For example, research addressing campus sexual assault including programs such as the Not Alone Campaign and the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative as ways to start finding solutions to reduce campus assault.  Sexual assault is a multidisciplinary problem and needs multidisciplinary research and evidence-based programs in order to see change.  The NIJ is also funding research to help provide justice to victims of sexual assault.

Dr. Rodriguez concluded her lecture by emphasizing the importance of relevant, responsive research.  Science is needed in order to make educated and appropriate decisions geared towards improving our criminal justice system.