Interview with Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson-Office of Justice Programs-DC Public Safety Radio

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[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital, this is the DC Public Safety.  I’m your host. Leonard Sipes.  Today’s interview is with Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson of the Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice.  Ms. Robinson has served in this position under two administrations, making her the longest-serving Assistant Attorney General in the history of the office of justice programs.  For the sake of brevity, the Office of Justice Programs oversees the work of federal effort to evaluate, fund, and provide technical assistance to the country’s criminal justice system.  She’s leaving this post and now’s a wonderful time to ask Laurie about lessons learned, and before getting into the bulk of the interview, what I wanted to do was to give some examples of some of the things that the office of justice programs works on.  These are just a few of the topics:  bullying, DNA backlogs, domestic violence, elder abuse and mistreatment, faith-based programs, hate crimes, human trafficking, identity theft, indigent defense, mentoring of offenders, juvenile justice, law enforcement tactics, prisoner reentry, victim assistance, and a database as to what works.  Laurie Robinson, Assistant Attorney General, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Laurie Robinson:  Well, thank you.  Thank you for having me.

Len Sipes:  I’m really pleased that you made the time to be here today.  Can I ask you why you’re going after all this time?

Laurie Robinson:  Well, I thought it was time that I be let out on parole.

Len Sipes:  Under supervision or without supervision?

Laurie Robinson:  Oh, I think probably supervision is necessary.

Len Sipes:  You’ve occupied the role longer than anybody else.  From that lofty perspective, I mean, you have.  You’ve been in charge of the federal government’s criminal justice system.  I mean, I know the attorney general is in charge, but you have headed it up under two administrations, you’ve been there for ten years, you’ve been there for longer than anybody else.  What are your observations?  What are your thoughts?  What are your lessons learned after being there for ten years?

Laurie Robinson:  Well, one thing I’d say is that the federal criminal justice system program has been around for almost 45 years, Len, and so I have been privileged to be there for almost a quarter of its history.

Len Sipes:  Yes.

Laurie Robinson:  And one of the things that I’ve always said to my troops is that the best ideas in this field are not invented in federal agency conference rooms in Washington, but I think we’re very good at kind of serving what’s going on around the country and then picking up those ideas and spreading them.

Len Sipes:  The best ideas do come from state and local criminal justice organizations, and they bubble up and we evaluate them and look at them and see if they really work and if we can replicate those findings elsewhere.

Laurie Robinson:  Yes, for example, with drug courts.  The first drug court was, of course, in Miami, but we were very helpful through the drug court program and through technical assistance and training and seed funding in getting that program out across the country.  At the same time, the energy for it came from the state and local level.

Len Sipes:  I just read an evaluation by the Urban Institute that you all funded where it compared drug courts to not just other offenders but other offenders of other types of treatment programs, and they had double the reduction of crime.  I mean, that is an extraordinarily important finding, and that’s the sort of stuff that you do.  You figure out what’s going on, you figure out what’s most potent, and you figure out the best way of doing it.

Laurie Robinson:  That’s right, and I think that this actually points to something very important about this program, which is not only knowledge development but then knowledge dissemination and then the technical assistance in training  I’ve often felt, Len, that the technical assistance dollars are one of the best, if not the best, federal investment in this area.  It’s change agent money, it’s leveraging change at the local and state level.

Len Sipes:  It’s guiding, it’s helping the state of Arkansas that comes up with a really interesting issue.  It helps that idea bubble up to the rest of the country, and then you all take a look at it and find out what works, what’s important, how it works, and then you disseminate those findings to everybody else.  If it wasn’t for the office of justice programs, that would not happen.

Laurie Robinson:  Yes, I think that that’s correct because if you think about it, no one state or no one locality can undertake that kind of in-depth research, or it’s rare, and they certainly are not in a position to disseminate it nationally or to undertake that kind of broad, broad research.

Len Sipes:  Now one of the things that you and I have talked about in the past is this whole concept of practitioner-based, a focus on the individual, law enforcement commander, correctional commander, juvenile justice person.  Have we made progress at the federal level in terms of making research come alive for them, making research user-friendly?  We’ve discussed the fact that some of the findings in the past have been pretty difficult to read, pretty difficult to understand.

Laurie Robinson:  Yes, I’ll tell you.  This has been one of my highest priorities.  In the time interval between my service under Janet Reno in the 90s and when I came back under Eric Holder in 2009, I was at the University of Pennsylvania running a Master’s program in criminology, and I kicked myself that during my time under Janet Reno, I had never set up something like a what-works clearinghouse.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laurie Robinson:  To distill research information for busy, front-line practitioners.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laurie Robinson:  Because you and I both know that a detective on the street or even a busy police chief cannot have the time to read academic journal articles or go to the American Society of Criminology meeting, and what they need is distilled information, and the same is true of busy Capitol Hill staff who are rushing to put a hearing together, for example.  So within probably a week after I came back to the office of justice programs, I pulled my staff together and I said we’re going to put together a what-works clearinghouse.

Len Sipes:  And you can find the clearinghouse at –  That clearinghouse is a what-works clearinghouse, and it is the first time in my 42 years within the criminal justice system that you can go to one spot and take a look at a variety of topics in terms of research, in terms of what works, and it provides a summation as to what that research has to say.  It’s taken us 40 years, four decades, to finally do that, and you did it.

Laurie Robinson:  Yeah, it’s called, so you can also find it just by Goggling

Len Sipes:  Okay, and why did it take us 40 years to do that?  Let me ask bluntly, has there in the past been too much of an emphasis on the research community and not enough emphasis on the cop in the street, the people who work the criminal justice system?

Laurie Robinson:  Well, I think there’s been a bifurcated focus, and there’s not been enough focus on getting the two of them together, and I’ll tell you, I’m a person who is impatient and coming back, I was even more impatient, and I thought if I’m going to be here, especially just a short period of time because originally I told Eric Holder I would only stay for a year and a half, and I thought I’m not going to be here long and we’re going to get this done, and I have to tell you, initially my staff said well, I don’t know, does this make sense? I said yep, it makes sense, and we’re going to do it.

Len Sipes:  One of the experiences I had when I was with the Maryland Department of Public Safety is a public safety secretary would come along, and this is a story you and I have discussed in the past, and he plopped this telephone-sized book of research on my desk and say Sipes, I don’t have time to read this.  Just give me a one-page summation as to what it has to say.  So that was the key to the whole thing, right?  Making it crystal clear, summarizing the research, and making the research come alive for the people in the field.

Laurie Robinson:  Right, that’s exactly right, and by the way, when I was teaching at Penn, I had my Master of Science students for their papers write one-page papers because I told them this would serve them better when they got out into post-graduation than the lengthy papers that they had to do in their other classes.

Len Sipes:  The hardest thing in the world is to write succinctly.  The hardest thing in the world to do is to get to the point, and a lot of people within the research community – you can blame this on me.  You don’t have to say this.  A lot of people in the research community have a very hard time doing that.

Laurie Robinson:  I do not disagree.

Len Sipes:  Okay now, evidence-based.  One thing that you really have emphasized in your time within President Obama’s administration has been evidence-based focused in criminal justice practices.  The Crimes Solutions database is one of them.  So the whole idea is that we, within the criminal justice system, have a degree of evidence that is easily readable that leads us to particular conclusions.  Evidence-based means what?

Laurie Robinson:  Well, I think that’s a very good question and when I did come back to OJP, I started something called the Evidence Integration Initiative for us to look across OJP at what we were doing in this area and in fact, even within our own agency, we had many different uses of that term in different grant solicitations, for example.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laurie Robinson:  So what it means, of course, is something based on science, but we have to be then articulating what that is.

Len Sipes:  Well, there’s a lot of people out there who are simply – still, I say, like offender reentry, which we are very, very involved in.  It does come down to a certain degree of difficulty in terms of what practices to put in place for what kind of offender.

Laurie Robinson:  Of course.

Len Sipes:  We’re getting there.  There’s been a ton of research under your administration and previous administrations, but there’s still a sense of out in the field, well gee, what do we do?  What does this mean?  What do we mean by the high-risk offender?  What do we mean by not putting so much of an emphasis on the low-risk offender?  What is high risk?  What is low risk?  Those are just a couple of the questions that have bubbled up, so giving people clear and concise guidance is so important.

Laurie Robinson:  Yes, and that’s why, I think, is an important piece of guidance for the field and why we are also launching this spring something we call our diagnostic center or our helpdesk, which will be an additional tool for local jurisdictions to actually assist them in implementing the programs that are being recommended by

Len Sipes:  Okay, it’s a double-barreled approach.  It’s in terms of what works and then there’s a technical assistance branch that helps people come to grips with the data.

Laurie Robinson:  Yes, for example, if you were the mayor of Des Moines, Iowa, and you were grappling with a problem, you might even know exactly what the problem is.  Maybe it’s after-school burglaries, but you don’t know what program you need it implement it.  You could call the diagnostic center and maybe even have a team deployed to go out and assess the problem and then turn to Crime Solutions or experts to assess what kind of approach is needed and then provide technical assistance to the jurisdiction to help in implementing that.

Len Sipes:  And that’s would be a godsend.  That really would because up to a couple years ago, we knew about the Department of Justice.  We knew about office of justice programs, we knew about BJA and NIJ and all the agencies that are under the Office of Justice Programs.  We knew that there was research, but sometimes the idea of coming to a conclusion was almost impossible. What you got when you contacted the National Criminal Justice Reference Service was a bibliography, and it’s like, who has time to go through this massive bibliography and figure out what data applies to your particular situation and what the lessons are.  So you’re streamlining that whole thing.

Laurie Robinson:  Yeah, and this is something I feel very strongly about.  If it’s hard for us in Washington to weave our way through the multiple funding streams – in OJP’s case, we have more than 50 different funding streams coming into our agency and multiple programs under some of those funding streams.  How is someone out in the middle of the country supposed to understand that, much less feel their way through the different programs and research programs underneath those to figure out what’s going to work in Des Moines or Dubuque or Denver?

Len Sipes:  Well, my assessment is that up until your arrival, it’s been almost impossible for them to do that.  It is a daunting task.  I mean, criminal justice administrators, as you’ve said, do not have time to read esoteric documents.

Laurie Robinson:  Correct.

Len Sipes:  They do not have time to wade through 500 pages, 200 pages, 150 pages, they just don’t have the time.  They want to say ah, drug courts, it works.  The Urban Institute even gave recommendations in terms of what were the most powerful elements of it.  They summarized a variety of research and they nailed it in terms of what the most viable parts of that program, the most workable parts of that program were, and that’s a difference.  We didn’t get that five years ago.

Laurie Robinson:  Well, I fell very strongly about that kind of connection in that we need to connect federal agencies with people in the field who are the users.

Len Sipes:  You know, one of the biggest issues, and I read two news summaries every day about crime and criminal justice agencies, and for the last two years – actually, longer than that – the big issue has been the budget reductions on the part of state and local agencies, and one of the things that your emphasis does is to try to point out to cash-strapped agencies the best ways of doing things and the best economical ways of doing things.

Laurie Robinson:  Right, and I think that’s exactly right, and this also is where research is so critical.  I mean, let’s take one area in law enforcement.  We know that law enforcement agencies around the country are seeing reductions.  The report that came out from the cop’s office several months back documented how so many law enforcement agencies are having to reduce the number of officers and yet, you look at the research from David Weisburd of George Mason University about hot spots police, and if we know the areas where crime is occurring, it can really point to exactly where officers need to be deployed.

Len Sipes:  Yes, a focus on people, a focus on places.

Laurie Robinson:  On places, exactly, and that can make it so much smarter.  The Attorney General talks about smart on crime and smart policing, exactly where you should be focusing your officers is a good way to think about a smart deployment of scarce resources

Len Sipes:  We’re halfway through the interview.  I want to reintroduce Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson of the Office of Justice Programs, –  One of the other things that is of immense interest to us, Laurie, is this whole concept of reducing recidivism, offenders coming out of the prison system.  There are 700,000 people released from state and federal prisons every single year, and the states are screaming bloody murder as to the fact that they can no longer afford the level of incarceration that they’ve had in the past.  Reducing the rate of return back to the prison system is just not only a public safety issue.  For them, it is an extraordinarily important way of controlling their own cost.  So you’ve put a lot of emphasis on offender reentry.  For those reasons?

Laurie Robinson:  Yes, absolutely.  It is an issue obviously about public safety, about reducing victimization in the community and as you said, it’s an issue about reducing costs.  This is a very high priority, not just for the office of justice programs but for the Attorney General, for Eric Holder.  As you probably know, Eric Holder is personally chairing a Cabinet-level reentry council, and he has more than half of the Cabinet, the domestic side of the Cabinet, personally attending these council meetings.  Len, you and I have both attended, what, thousands of meetings in our lives, in our professional lives.

Len Sipes:  Absolutely, yeah.

Laurie Robinson:  I have had the privilege of sitting at the table in Eric Holder’s conference room with this reentry council, and I will tell you that these two meetings that I have sat at have been the most exciting meetings perhaps in my entire professional career.  To sit at the table and see these Cabinet members personally engaged.  They’re not reading talking points.  They’re excited about what they can do to get involved and draw not only the resources but the engagement and energy, and the power of their Cabinet departments to address this issue.

Len Sipes:  Does the average citizen, though, understand that what we’re talking about is less victimization?  I mean, the good news is that there’s been an almost continual 20-year decrease in crime and certainly research in the office of justice programs have greatly contributed to this long-term reduction in crime, but if you go into Baltimore and Cleveland and so many other cities throughout this country, crime is just an integral part of their day-to-day lives.  It really has an impact on schools, on cities, and that’s what we’re talking about, are we not?  What we’re talking about is not only saving states money in terms of fewer people coming back into the prison system.  We’re talking about fewer victimizations and we’re talking about thousands of fewer victimizations.

Laurie Robinson:  You are obviously correct on that, but you raise a very good point, that while crime, of course, is down across the country, there are many communities, particularly in urban areas, where crime remains a daunting problem.

Len Sipes:  Yes.

Laurie Robinson:  And have we sufficiently educated the public in those areas about the importance of reentry and reducing recidivism? I don’t know that we have.  In fact, I think we have not sufficiently done that important public education job, and so there’s more to be done there, but it’s a very important job that we do because the costs are huge and the costs are great for those communities in a broader, non-monetary sense because it destroys those communities.

Len Sipes:  I won’t say who they are, but two people who are very close to me said Leonard, I know you’re interested in this concept of offender reentry, but look, we have the elderly to take care of, we have schools to take care of, we have kids to take care of.  I’m just not all that excited about pouring more money into people who have harmed other human beings.  I mean, I have struggled to convince people who are close to me that this is a concept worth considering, so that’s a daunting problem for those of us in the criminal justice system to convince people that this is in their best interest.

Laurie Robinson:  Yes, and I think that that’s why public education is needed, and I think, for example, on the issue of employment of ex-offenders.  When there are many people out of work in this country that this is a real challenge.  One of the things that is very heartening to me is that there is strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in the states.

Len Sipes:  Isn’t that interesting? We have some staunch conservatives.  I’m sorry for bringing up politics, but we have people on both sides of the aisle who are now very supportive of this concept of reentry.

Laurie Robinson:  Yes.  I think there’s a strong belief in the faith community, for example, in the notion of redemption.

Len Sipes:  Yes.

Laurie Robinson:  And I find this very heartening and that there is a strong base of support for the notion of people coming back and becoming good fathers and mothers in their families, to their children, because of course we know that the children of incarcerated persons, that there’s a great deal from the research that says there’s a strong chance that they, themselves, will follow lives of crime, as well.

Len Sipes:  Right, it’s just not that individual offender.  It’s the children.  I mean, 80% of women offenders – it’s a very large number in terms of male offenders – they have kids.  I mean, it’s just not them, it’s the kids who will benefit greatly from an employed, non-drug using person.

Laurie Robinson:  Correct, and the impact on the community around them, as well, of course

Len Sipes:  We talked about basic recommendations for law enforcement.  Did you have any more?  I mean, this is exciting.  I mean, what we’re trying to do for law enforcement is to marshal the focus on individual places, hot spots policing where the most crime occurs, marshaling resources, doing crime analysis, analyzing what’s there, predicting future behavior.  Nobody quite understands all of the technical documents that comes out of your office in terms of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, in terms of evaluating tires on police cars, in terms of the best way to collect evidence.  I mean, that all comes out of your office.

Laurie Robinson:  Right.

Len Sipes:  The public’s fascinated with CSI.  You are CSI.  You’re the real CSI.

Laurie Robinson:  Yes, and I’m probably not the best.  I’m definitely not the best person to explain all of the detail on the technical side but yes, we have wonderful people working on those issues and we fund a great deal on the side of forensics and the technical – the tire analysis and all of that, and I’m proud of the work that’s done there under our National Institute of Justice.

Len Sipes:  But as a former state trooper, as a person who as gone well over 100 miles an hour responding to calls, the best possible tires were very important to me and my life and the lives of other people, and I am just not quite sure that everybody realizes the complexity of your organization in terms of how many fingers you have in so many pies within the criminal justice system.

Laurie Robinson:  Yes, and actually the first research on DNA was done in our predecessor agency, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, LEAA, so there’s great history there, as well as the invention of the bulletproof vest.

Len Sipes:  The bulletproof vest research is, again, of interest to me because I have to wear one with this agency when I’m going with the parole and probation officers out in the field.  So let me go off law enforcement for a second.  Any recommendations regarding juvenile justice?  I mean, this is a field where there’s some sort of yin and yang between putting them away and the treatment part of it, which also applies to adult offenders, as well, but it seems to have a greater emphasis in the juvenile justice field.  Is that something that you want to talk about in terms of best practices?

Laurie Robinson:  Yes.  I think that in the juvenile justice field, we have actually a combination of new material both on the hard science and the soft science.  Very interesting work, as I’m sure you know, that’s been done in what I would call the hard science side that has been greatly publicized by the Macarthur Foundation and others about the development of the adolescent mind, and I think the New York Times Magazine had an interesting piece about this not too long ago that has real consequences about the kind of lack of development of the adolescent brain and how it’s not fully developed until individuals are into their 20s, and the inability for impulse control and that kind of thing that has real implications about the transfer of adolescents into the adult system, for example, and how we really deal with children in the justice system.

Len Sipes:  One of the things I found exciting as I was reading a literature review one day, and they said that out of all the things regarding juvenile justice, the idea of sending social workers into the homes of kids who are acting out and working with the parents or working with the mother at a fairly early age – that contributed to one of the highest decreases in criminal activity when they followed these individuals over the course of 25 years.  That’s exciting.  I mean, that gives us clear guidance in terms of something that we can do early and yet bring down the crime rate even more.

Laurie Robinson:  Yes.  I think this was the nurse home visitation study, and that is some of the most rigorous research that has been done, kind of gold standard research, and it shows dramatic reductions in later delinquency and really a stark contrast at relatively low cost.  So that is an excellent example.  Something else I would point to, research by Ed Mulvey, which talks about with relatively serious juvenile offenders the kind of things that can be done there to reduce recidivism  For example, substance treatment that really can make a difference.  After care is very key, and his research also shows that longer stays in juvenile confinement do not necessarily decrease or do, rather, decrease recidivism. So his work, which has really followed juveniles over a long period of time I think is quite significant.

Len Sipes:  We have just a couple minutes left in terms of a very quick program.  So the bottom line in all of this, Madam Assistant Attorney General, Laurie, is that through the years of research, we are now coming to clear conclusions in terms of how the criminal justice system should conduct itself.  That seems to be borne out in the fact that especially within the last 10-15 years we’ve had almost continual reductions in crime.  So you know, that seems to be a message, does it not, that we really do have a pretty good sense as to where it is that we should go?  All we have to do now is to make it available to the practitioner.

Laurie Robinson:  Well, I do think that first of all, I’m not sure that we can claim that what we’ve been doing is responsible for the reductions in crime.

Len Sipes:  Agreed, agreed.

Laurie Robinson:  But I do think that we are on a good course as far as trying to unite the research findings with practitioners, and I am so optimistic about the kind of energy and quality of practitioners both in criminal and juvenile justice in this country.  I used to say to my students when I was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania – we were right across the street from the Wharton School of Business, and on the first day of classes, I would say to them, if you’re in this business to make money, you should really go across the street to Wharton.  You know, people, in other words, are in our business because they have a passion, because they care about it, and it’s true across the country that people work in this business because they care, because they have a passion, and I see this when I travel across the country that people are so engaged, even with the challenges out there.

Len Sipes:  And those challenges are many because you know, I was just reading the other day about indigent defense, public defender offices being cut.  I mean, more than ever before, I mean, some public defenders offices are basically saying that they just can’t handle it.  I mean, the budget cuts – there’s a wide variety of agencies that are really struggling.  This means the best possible research to show people how to do more with less.

Laurie Robinson:  That’s right, but I think people in our field are so innovative and they’re open to change.  This is not true in every field, but I think we have seen over the last ten years that people in the criminal and juvenile justice fields are, at least at the state and local level, open to change and they’re willing to innovate, and they have been enormously innovative.  I think we’re at a real crossroads here because of the pressures from the budget and that taking an area like justice reinvestment, that people are willing to work across the aisle, that they’re willing to look at new approaches, and that they’re seeing results from it relying on research and relying on new approaches.

Len Sipes:  This may be an opportunity.  This may be forced change, force us to change the way we do business within the criminal justice system.

Laurie Robinson:  Absolutely.

Len Sipes:  And we couldn’t do that without your research.

Laurie Robinson:  Well, without the research and sharing lessons learned.

Len Sipes:  We close.  Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson of the Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice, we greatly appreciate you being here, and ladies and gentlemen, as always, we appreciate your letters, we appreciate your emails, we appreciate your phone calls with criticisms and suggestions and recommendations for new shows, and I want everybody to have themselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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