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ASA Connects Policymakers, Congressional Staffers

1 March 2024 No Comment

As part of its science policy work, the American Statistical Association organized a congressional briefing in January to highlight the role of statistics and research in informing criminal justice policymaking. Cosponsored by the Consortium of Social Science Associations and moderated by ASA Fellow Greg Ridgeway, the virtual event featured Nancy La Vigne, director of the National Institute of Justice, and Kevin Scott, acting director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

La Vigne—a prominent figure in criminal justice policy—discussed the National Institute of Justice’s role as the research, development, and technology arm of the US Department of Justice, charged with developing knowledge across various criminal justice and public safety topics to promote the efficiency, effectiveness, and equity of criminal justice policies and practices. She provided examples of NIJ’s leadership in supporting external research on forensic science conducted by labs and individual investigators nationwide. She also noted research on emerging drugs, especially those challenging for the federal government to regulate due to changing chemical compositions. Additionally, La Vigne discussed the NIJ-supported Novel Psychoactive Substances Discovery program, which uses innovative testing of samples received in collaboration with medical examiners/coroners, crime and toxicology laboratories, and public health and safety agencies to identify novel drugs on their first instance within the drug supply, monitor increases in drug-related harms and overdoses through nationwide toxicology testing, and track the prevalence and positivity of individual drugs as they emerge and eventually wane among the increasingly diverse drug supply.

La Vigne also touched upon NIJ’s work in seized drugs and toxicology related to cannabis—referencing the 2018 Farm Bill, which made a legal distinction between cannabis and hemp—as well as the increased decriminalization of cannabis for recreational use in many states. NIJ has funded research to develop better tools that enable crime labs to make this distinction between hemp and cannabis. Additionally, the institute has supported research to develop field tests that may allow law enforcement to identify individuals driving under the influence of marijuana.

In the area of forensic anthropology, La Vigne highlighted NIJ’s support for research at the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center (informally known as the Body Farm), which allows researchers to study how bodies decompose under different conditions. It also allows researchers to develop vital information from skeletal remains, helping to improve death investigation and human remains identification. This type of research supports the mission of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a database and forensic testing service that houses information about missing persons and unidentified decedents and provides free forensic services. The system also relies on the public to submit information, making it a powerful tool in resolving cold cases and providing justice to victims and their families.

Moving to investigative sciences, La Vigne discussed NIJ’s efforts in ballistic testing. Traditional methods of identifying weapons used in crime based on cartridge cases are prone to inaccuracies. NIJ, in collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, developed 3D ballistic imaging technology, which offers highly reliable results and has transformed the process of investigating firearms homicides.

Finally, La Vigne emphasized NIJ’s commitment to ensuring officer safety through its longstanding body armor standards and compliance testing program. This program tests police body armor to meet NIJ standards and provides law enforcement agencies with crucial information when procuring protective gear. Each year, around 40% of submissions fail to meet NIJ standards. La Vigne emphasized the program’s importance in protecting officers, who can be confident body armor with the NIJ seal of approval has met the highest standards of protection.

Scott took the floor to discuss the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ role as the primary statistics agency within the Department of Justice. Scott focused on the National Crime Victimization Survey, which turned 50 last year. The survey, a cornerstone of BJS’ work, collects criminal victimization data, including reported and unreported incidents. The National Crime Victimization Survey underwent a significant redesign, marking its first in 30 years.

Scott explained the new instrument aims to enhance efficiency, ease of administration, and respondent engagement. The redesign incorporated changes to screening questions and crime incident reports, ensuring more specific and detailed participant responses. Notably, questions about rape and sexual assault were updated to use language more familiar and accessible to respondents. The survey continues to employ a two-stage approach, which includes initial screening for crime victimization followed by a detailed incident report for victims of criminal victimization. However, the redesign helps engage non-victim respondents better by informing them about the survey, which could lead to better participation rates and survey responses if they experience victimization.

The webinar ended with a Q&A session that was not recorded. During the session, Scott and La Vigne shared the following ways to access BJS statistics and NIJ research:

  • National Crime Victimization Survey Data Dashboard (N-DASH): A dynamic analysis tool that allows users to examine National Crime Victimization Survey data on personal and property victimization by victim, household, and incident characteristics
  • CrimeSolutions: A clearinghouse of rigorously evaluated programs and practices that allows users to search through NIJ-funded research findings
  • askBJS@usdoj.gov or AskNIJ: Submit questions or suggestions (monitored by staff)

This was the ASA’s second NIJ and BJS leadership briefing for congressional staffers. During the previous briefing, held in July of 2023, La Vigne and then-BJS Director Alex Piquero gave an overview of their agencies and highlighted their research and statistics products.

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