Bridging the gap between research and practice in criminal justice

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Photo credit: Paige/Flickr

Beyond serving as a forum for academic research about criminal justice topics, the American Society of Criminology’s annual meeting primarily embodied the changing reputation of criminology as a niche sociological field. The secondary message sent by academics at this conference was that their work should have a greater public exposure and impact on public policy. As such, translational criminology, which consists of studying how best to turn conclusions derived from criminal justice research into tangible policy outcomes, is now a primary focus for many in the academic community hoping to make a difference.

With evidence-based practices becoming increasingly popular in many areas of criminal justice, the external push for academics to engage in policy decisions is logical. How such a connection can be forged sustainably, though, is less obvious.

Bridging the divide between academia and practitioners has long been a challenge for both parties. Dr. David Bayley, a professor at the State University of New York at Albany’s School of Criminal Justice, remarked in 1997 that “research may not have made as significant, or at least as coherent, an impression on policing as scholars like to think.” The accessibility of the academic journal was frequently cited as a cause for this disconnect by academics at the conference, extending beyond journal paywalls and into issues of language and writing style. While publications like Police Chief Magazine have addressed some of these issues, the problem lies in the fact that most research findings are still housed exclusively in traditional academic journals tailored for an audience of fellow researchers.

As a response to concerns within the community, some members of government, academia and the media have each taken steps to spread the adoption of translational criminology as a vital part of policy making.

On the government side, the Office of Justice Programs established its Evidence Integration Initiative (E2I) to advance this goal, a program that will support and encourage the use of findings created by academics., which is funded and supported by E2I, rates criminal justice programs through a thorough review process. This potential solution includes a protocol for evaluating programs by combing independent studies that test their effectiveness. The “Smart Suite” of crime fighting programs designed by the Bureau of Justice Assistance — which include the Smart Policing, Smart Supervision and Smart Prosecution Initiatives — similarly aims to promote data-driven results in each of these focus areas by encouraging practitioners to work with research partners specializing in the science of program analysis.

Academic institutions have developed their own outlets for bridging the gap between research and policy. George Mason’s biannual Translational Criminology magazine, published by the school’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, serves as a platform for discussion between academics and practitioners, even touting the center’s Evidence-Based Policing Hall of Fame to highlight police chiefs who use policy supported by research in their departments. Florida State’s “Translational Criminology: Research and Public Policy” study, funded through a National Institute of Justice grant and to be completed next year, aims to identify strategies to improve the use of research evidence in state-level policy development and criminal justice decision-making. Further, Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute developed its own Standardized Program Evaluation Protocol for determining how well an existing program parallels juvenile recidivism research evidence.

As research increasingly influences changes to policy, media outlets have also taken to making academia the focus of their coverage. Through a collaborative effort between John Jay College’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice and Criminal Justice Journalists, The Crime Report — a news service specifically dedicated to covering criminal justice issues — expressly turns to criminologists and practitioners for commentary, striving to highlight emerging research in its reports. Similarly, The Society Pages, headquartered at the University of Minnesota, brings social science research to the forefront of public discussion by featuring widely accessible research briefs and highlighting studies cited by the media at large.

While the criminal justice world struggles to adjust in the age of big data, researchers, practitioners and the media will all have important roles to play in ensuring that effective policy is enacted on every scale. This includes making research accessible not just to fellow researchers but also to criminal justice practitioners, such as law enforcement officials, and the media. Moving forward, more channels for communication between these entities will only make a stronger case for evidence-based practices and serve to bridge the divide between the still disparate entities of academia and policy.