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"RDCJN Now" By Sarah Arnold

Nancy Rodriguez

My Interview with Director Nancy Rodriguez

By Sarah Davis Arnold

June, 14, 2015

Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing the Director of the National Institute of Justice and RDCJN Member, Dr. Nancy Rodriguez. She eloquently spoke of her experiences in academia, her recent book, her new position as director, and the value of collaborative work in the field of crime and justice. Her responses were informative and intriguing and I would suggest reading through the interview, which is featured below.

What originally sparked your interest in criminal justice, and in pursuing the research topics that you have undertaken?

Growing up, I always dreamed of becoming a lawyer.  In many ways, I viewed law as the vehicle for a fair and just criminal justice system.  As I grew older, I saw first-hand the many adversities that many of my peers in my community were facing.  This included economic strain, fragile families, exposure to violence and drugs. Once I began college, I decided to seek a profession that had me working with delinquent youth, providing service and treatment they need. At the University, I was fortunate to have faculty mentors expose me to the scientific enterprise. I wouldn’t be here today without their persistent encouragement and support. 

What are some of the challenges and benefits that you have experienced in conducting research in your areas?

Some of the challenges I have experienced include:
Conveying the importance of a particular research question to a criminal justice agency and seeking access to data that informs that issue can be a challenge.  This is a skill I learned early on in my career and still utilize to this day.  I’ve never assumed I’m entitled to data or that data collection on-site won’t impede in the day to day operations of an agency. Of course, it does. Navigating those parameters can be tricky but establishing a level of trust with those key stakeholders is the key to this potential challenge.   
It can be very time consuming to collect data on-site or waiting for administrative records from an agency.  These timelines don’t often coincide with the tenure clock or other faculty pressures. 

Benefits I have experienced:
I saw time and time again the direct impact my work had on the criminal justice system and the lives of those I studied.  I also made new colleagues and friends in the justice system who day to day, serve to protect our communities and provide support and resources to those most vulnerable in society.  There is no doubt, I am a better scholar and person because of these relationships.  

What is the focus of your new book on Dreams and Nightmares: Immigration Policy, Youth, and Families?  What kind of impact do you hope that it will have?

Marjorie, my co-author, and I take critical look at the challenges and dilemmas of immigration policy and practice in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform. We focus on the experiences of children and youth, and examine the mechanisms by which immigration policies and practices mitigate or exacerbate harm to vulnerable children and youth. We highlight the role of prosecutorial discretion, assessing its potential and limitations for addressing issues involving parental detention and deportation, unaccompanied minors, and Dreamers who came to the United States as young children.

Impact: We hope that our book places children at the forefront of immigration policy and practice by focusing on the best interest of children at all stages of immigration processing. We hope that all key players come together (NGOs, Congress, Center for Human Services, immigration, and child welfare systems) to resolve the tension between their competing goals and objectives. Also, our account should inform policies at the state level, where attempts are made to reduce the harm to children and families. Of course, we hope that broader discussions about race, crime and justice are placed in broader context of immigration.

What are the main objectives you hope to accomplish as Director of the National Institute of Justice?

I have a particularly strong interest in bringing together diverse perspectives and using multidisciplinary talents.  Innovation comes when people with different views come together. I especially want to foster this in NIJ’s solicitations and review process. I also want to be aware of who is missing from the conversation and engage more with groups who are committed to teducing the number of justice-involved populations, historically black colleges and universities and Hispanic serving institutions. It is important to ensure that our work reflects the population of people we invest resources in.

I hope to take full advantage of the expertise found in the academic community and professional associations, such as the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors and the American Society of Criminology. By strengthening our collaborations, we can rally around a common goal and have more productive outcomes. I believe this is a stronger strategy than taking on individual, piecemeal projects that may or may not connect with each other. Tapping the expertise of a diverse set of external partners will support NIJ in further bridging researchers and practitioners in the criminal justice system.

NIJ is also working to ensure its strategic priorities align with our partners in the field and in the Administration. The alignment will ensure we are investing resources wisely- whether those resources go into developing new technology, validating forensic science methods, or conducting social science research. Our job is to provide evidence-based knowledge on the issues that our nation is most concerned with, for example, building trust between police and their community, addressing the collateral consequences of incarceration, and improving safety of our schools.

I am also committed to developing young scholars. Currently, NIJ has several programs that support graduate students, such as the Graduate Research and the W.E.B. Du Bois Fellowship Programs, but I would also like NIJ to contribute to the training of young scholars beyond graduate school; to create an avenue to support a young scientist in his or her pursuit of knowledge.

How do you think your research will inform your new role as Director?

My work has always been informed by those who use my research. The Department of Justice and the Office of Justice Programs is the perfect environment for me given the mission to deliver programs that are evidence- based, where high quality research is expected and highly valued.

Do you feel that your new role as Director of the NIJ will allow you to fulfill any goals that you have been unable achieve to as a professor and dean?

The scale and scope of matters I now have direct oversight of are truly unparalleled. I am in the position to make investments in critical areas and social issues facing our justice system and most vulnerable populations.  To be part of national discussions and have the authority to invest in science that will not only create knowledge but advance justice is a tremendous privilege and honor.

What do you think is the value of the Racial Democracy, Crime and Justice Network for faculty?

I can’t emphasize enough the value of engaging and having access to the leading scholars in the area of race, crime and justice.  Also, young scholars find multiple mentors who support them throughout their professional development.  Being part of this intellectual community provides members with the current state of research on a variety of topics related to race, crime, and justice.  The opportunities for collaboration on papers, grant proposals, and workshops often exceed the capacity of the members.  The RDCJN is truly a model program that continues to grow and have a profound impact on its members.   

Are there any lessons that you have learned during your career that you would want to share with RDCJN members or young scholars in the field of criminal justice?

Get advice from an array of different individuals. In other words, diversify your professional network. Also, never forget the critical role that we play in educating and training the future generation of scholars.  Lastly, know when to take yourself seriously and when to pause, smile, and laugh.