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The ‘Think Tank’ That Delivers Innovation to Justice Systems

National Institute of Justice’s new director outlines goals for driving intersectional development across the criminal justice system.

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image of Nancy La Vigne, Director, Nation Institute of Justince in front of the department of justice building in Washington D.C.
Photo Credit: composite image by GovCIO Media & Research

A database that helps laboratories identify unknown novel psychoactive substances, a system that supports investigations around missing and unidentified people, and facial recognition are just a few of the technologies borne out of a Department of Justice think thank.

The department oversees a number of mission areas including criminal justice forensics, drug law enforcement, missing person investigations and cybercrime mitigation, each requiring equally sophisticated technologies and policies. It might not be obvious that science plays an important part in all these issues at the department.

Enter the National Institute of Justice — the agency’s vehicle to funnel innovation into actionable solutions delivery for federal, state and local law enforcement and justice systems. Newly helming the organization since May is Director Nancy La Vigne, who described how the agency identifies and delivers on various needs across systems.

The agency has a number of projects and ongoing activities, such as developing databases that track missing people and supporting research that investigates school violence and safety.

“We’re essentially DOJ’s think tank,” La Vigne told GovCIO Media & Research. “They look to us when they want to know, what we do know about domestic terrorism or any topic that’s on their mind, on the front page. They’re often seeking our expertise, both from our staff, our research scientists, as well as from the research that we have funded and supported.”

This “think tank” research and development process occurs in six steps:

  • identification of field needs
  • research agenda development
  • external and intramural research solicitation and implementation
  • post-award monitoring
  • research evaluation
  • research result dissemination across the field

“We are constantly convening practitioners and researchers in various public and professional forums,” La Vigne said. “We do that on a routine basis, topic by topic, and that happens also when we undergo the peer review process for proposed research. Those peer review panels consist of a mix of researchers and practitioners. A quarter of our work is to be either soliciting input from the field or engaging with them in order to disseminate research findings and making sure that is getting in the hands of people who can use those findings.”

When it comes to the fast-evolving nature of the controlled opioid market, one challenge for the law enforcement community has been quickly and efficiently identifying and testing new psychoactive substances. The institute initiated a project that resulted in creating the Novel Psychoactive Substances Discovery database in 2021.

The agency created this system as an open-access drug characterization and tracking database that helps labs identify unknown substances of this type.

“This database enables for almost real-time identification of these substances and has been used, again, as an early warning system,” La Vigne said. “DOJ’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) uses it to identify where emerging trends are happening and use that as a part of their counter-drug strategy quite successfully.”

Another program at NIJ is the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs. Over 600,000 people go missing in the country each year, and NamUs helps law enforcement gain the tools, technologies and resources to store, share and compare case information with other criminal justice professionals. The system also enables medical examiners to solve unidentified decedent cases, and it provides tools for the families of missing persons to search case information.

While NIJ has developed a variety of solutions for its justice and law enforcement partners, La Vigne said the agency is still looking to further develop policies that provide guardrails for accountable and responsible deployment of certain contentious technologies, such as facial recognition.

Although concerns around the technology include the argument that its an invasion of privacy, La Vigne said, it could be very useful to identify someone who was part of a terrorist cult, for example.

“There’s also concerns about how accurate facial recognition is, so we understand these tensions, and when we support development and application of new technology, we always consider these issues around ethical use, unintended consequences, racially disparate consequences, and ensure that those are also measured and accounted for,” she added.

As the agency’s new chief, La Vigne is eyeing further applied research development to help inform the field and to improve security and justice activities. A critical piece of this work will be in fostering inclusive research and elevating studies that examine equity in the criminal justice system.

“These are research topics that force the researcher [to] really take the time to identify all the people who are affected by the issue or topic under study and ensures that those people are consulted,” La Vigne said. “These actors could vary based on research questions. They could be community members, they could be crime survivors, maybe some form of criminal justice practitioner, prosecutors, investigators, correctional officers, people who have experienced the criminal justice system and incarceration, business leaders.”

La Vigne argued that this approach helps NIJ and its researchers develop data collection mechanisms that include user input and help identify the implications of research for policy and practice in the field.

Across these activities, La Vigne also aims to incorporate questions of racial equity across NIJ’s programs and research to reduce racially disparate impacts across the criminal justice system.

To accomplish these goals, La Vigne said she wants to promote more research conducted with interdisciplinary teams. Although NIJ has cross-sectional research underway already, she said that adding diverse experiences, backgrounds and areas of inquiry will enrich the organization’s work.

“Yes, we are a research entity housed in the Department of Justice, and we’re squarely in the crime and justice space, but that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be a criminologist or forensic scientist,” La Vigne said. “There’s room for a lot of different disciplinary perspectives, and it’s my belief that the more you bring in different disciplines, the stronger the research methodology, the better the finding.”

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