Observations on Crime and Justice-Former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson-DC Public Safety

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[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m really pleased to have back at our microphones, former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson. Let me read some background about Laurie because she is one of the most impressive people that I have ever spoken to within the criminal justice system, which is why we’re calling this program today an Observation on Crime and Justice with one of the most experienced criminal justice leaders in the country’s history, and that’s certainly no exaggeration. Laurie was sworn in as Assistant Attorney General on November 9th, 2009. She previously served as Assistant Attorney General at the Office of Justice Programs from 1993 to February 2000. During that time, she oversaw the largest increase in federal spending on criminal justice research in the nation’s history. Under her leadership, the annual appropriations for the Office of Justice Programs grew substantially – from $800 million in 1993 to over $4 billion in 2000. At the same time, she also spearheaded initiatives in areas ranging from comprehensive community-based crime control to violence against women, law enforcement technology, drug abuse, and corrections. But there is a chapter two to Ms. Robinson’s career. She served as Acting Assistant Attorney General and Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the Office of Justice Programs from January 2009 until nominated by President Obama in September 2009. She oversaw the implementation of the $2.7 billion in programs for which Congress assigned responsibility to the Office of Justice Programs under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; launched a new agency-wide Integration Initiative looking at evidence-based procedures and science-based approach. She has also had a series of “listening sessions” with state and local constituents to learn what the Office of Justice Programs can better do to serve the field. She is currently, currently; she transitioned out of the Department of Justice in February of 2012. As of August 2012, she is now with the George Mason University. She is a professor, the Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Criminology, Law and Society. She is, again, George Mason University, the website http://cls.gmu.edu or simply Google George Mason and Criminology. Laurie Robinson, welcome back to DC Public Safety.

Laurie Robinson: Well thank you, Len, and I am delighted to be with you again.

Len Sipes: I am delighted to be with you because I am serious; there are very few people in my 42 years in the criminal justice system that I know who are more experienced than you, who have served at the top level of the criminal justice system. I understand the Attorney General is the top law enforcement officer but in terms of the Office of Justice Programs and the related agencies, that was basically the research and funding arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, correct?

Laurie Robinson: Yes, that is correct, and thank you for having me.

Len Sipes: Well, no, I’m very, very, very pleased that you’re by our microphones once again, and again, this is enormous. You are the longest-lasting Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice, again, in charge of funding and in charge of technical assistance and in charge of research. You’ve got a longer history than anybody else, correct?

Laurie Robinson: Yes, that is correct.

Len Sipes: All right. That’s amazing. That’s truly amazing, and that’s why the program is initially called Observations on Crime and Justice from the most experienced criminal justice leader in the country. So Laurie, let’s get down to it. First of all, congratulations on all of your service to the country at the Department of Justice, and you went to George Mason University beginning in August, at the beginning of the school year – a very prestigious, Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Criminology, Law and Society. Why did you leave the Department of Justice, what were your accomplishments, and what do you look forward to doing as a professor?

Laurie Robinson: Oh, well, I’m very excited about being at George Mason but just to step back, when I came to OJP in January of 2009 when Eric Holder asked me to join him in the Obama Administration, you know Len, I initially thought that it would only be for short period of time to help out in the new administration, and as it turned out, the stay was a little bit longer, about three years. And when I told Eric Holder early this calendar year that I was going to leave, the reason that I felt that I could was that I really believed that we had made substantial progress toward goals that I had set when I first came in in 2009, and there were three primary goals that I had laid out, and I will go over them very quickly. The first was restoring a respect for science. That was an area where the Attorney General and I felt it was very important to lay down some markers, and so in several areas, for example appointing leading criminologists to head the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and there as you know, John Laub and Jim Lynch had done a tremendous job at NIJ and BJS.

Len Sipes: Absolutely.

Laurie Robinson: The Attorney General appointed a Science Advisory Board for OJP. That’s something I felt was an important step and something that will outlast, I hope, this administration.

Len Sipes: Um-hum.

Laurie Robinson: We also launched, as you know, an Evidence Integration Initiative to really stress the importance of evidence-based programs. And something that I’ve felt very strongly about was setting up a What Works Clearing House or a crimesolutions.gov that I know you’ve talked about a great deal.

Len Sipes: Absolutely.

Laurie Robinson: A second goal was restoring strong and credible partnerships with the criminal and juvenile justice field, with law enforcement, with corrections, with victims with the juvenile justice and all the rest. I felt like we made tremendous in that area, though of course there’s always more to be done. And the third goal that I’ve felt very strongly about was ensuring that OJP’s grant process was a fair one, a transparent one, and that we were using federal money in a very wise and very careful way, that we were good stewards of federal funds.

Len Sipes: And that’s what was going through in my mind. The pledge was from the very beginning to be good stewards of federal money, to be sure that federal money was fairly placed, and it was a science-based initiative, an evidence-based initiative rather than a consideration of anything else.

Laurie Robinson: Yes, as an example, you mentioned in the introduction the Recovery Act which was early in the administration, of course. We were able to ensure, as an example, that 100% of OJP’s $2.7 billion under the Recovery Act was obligated in a very timely manner, and that’s really due to the work of the career staff at OJP. I would have to credit them for that. We had no new staff to get that money out, we just had to be very, very diligent and effective and efficient in the way we turned that money around very quickly to get it out. So those are the kinds of things that were top initiatives, and I have to really credit people who I miss very much, people like Mary Lou Leary who’s now the Acting Assistant Attorney General at OJP, Jim Burch who’s the Deputy Assistant Attorney General there, Thomas Abt who was my Chief of Staff. So I felt with people like that who are now running OJP, that I was leaving it in very good hands.

Len Sipes: And I just spoke to Jim and Mary Lou the other day when I was up at the Office of Justice Programs. I’m not quite sure anybody – and it sounds gratuitous and it sounds very self-serving – but I’m not quite sure that people understand how hard the people at the Office of Justice Programs work in terms of getting these grants out, doing the technical assistance. Okay, so we’ve praised OJP – very, very justifiably – and you’re at George Mason and you’re a Professor. You were a Professor in between your stints with the Department of Justice so you’re basically going back to what my guess is going to be is your first love.

Laurie Robinson: Well, actually I think most people who work in the government, I do love academia, but most people who work in the government always say that their best job is in public service, and you know, it’s hard to beat working for the Department of Justice but I do love George Mason. I have wonderful colleagues there, and one of the things that is extremely appealing about the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason and what appealed to me so much about going there, along with some of the very top people there – people like Steve Mastrofski, David Weisburd, Faye Taxman, Cynthia Lum – is their focus on just what I was working on at the Department of Justice, and that is the bridging between policy and practice on the one hand and research on the other. They have a great emphasis on the implementation of research into practice.

Len Sipes: Quite the evidence-based lab there at George Mason. I interviewed Faye Taxman who I’ve also known for years, and extraordinarily impressed with reading their materials and the dedication to using evidence to use guide us within the criminal justice system.

Laurie Robinson: Yes, yeah. Faye’s Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence is so good, and similar the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policies that David Weisburd and Cynthia Lum run, both of centers are an example of the kind of very practically- and scholarly-focused work that’s going on the Criminology Department out there that just are terribly exciting to me, and they involve their graduate students in this work as well as the professors of course, and do a lot of outreach to practitioners as well. So this is terribly important work and to me it’s exciting work as well.

Len Sipes: One of the things that fits perfectly into, that emphasis on the practitioner, is that you and I have had a series of discussions in the past about the emphasis on practitioners. The overwhelming majority of the individuals who use the research, who use the statistics, who use the technical assistance that’s coming out of the Office of Justice Programs and the related agencies – Bureau of Justice Assistance, National Institute of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office for Victims of Crime, others that just don’t come to mind at the moment – are, you know, criminal justice, well, people like me. I mean, we’re just schmucks in the Criminal Justice system. We’re just day-to-day people who take this training, and technical assistance, and research and try to put it to good use, and one of the things that emphasized to me was “Leonard, we really, really, really do need to have a greater emphasis on making things easier, better, quicker for practitioners. If we don’t get the research in their hands and if they don’t use it, then we’re really not succeeding at what we do,” correct?

Laurie Robinson: Yes, that is terribly important, and one of the things that I’m very impressed with in the work for example that Cynthia Lum and Chris Koper at the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, what they’re doing in the area of law enforcement, policing, is focusing in, as an example, really at the nuts-and-bolts level. How do we, for example, in their words, change the habits of policing? This is getting down to really the on-the-ground level to how do we get evidence-based practices into field training? How do we get it into the police academies? How do we get it into roll-call training? This is very exciting to me because it’s a way of really translating from the research papers down the work of the patrol officer. It’s not simply talking to police chiefs and the IACP, International Association of Chiefs of Police meeting. It’s really getting it down to what’s happening on the streets of Arlington, Virginia, or Dallas, Texas, or wherever.

Len Sipes: Well, that gets me back to the discussions in the past – to do that, whatever it is that the Office of Justice Programs and related agencies creates needs to be in plain English, needs to be very quick, needs to be very simple, and I would imagine George Mason is taking the same approach. You know, I praise the Urban Institute all the time in terms of the clarity of their research and the simplicity of their research. It takes probably five minutes to read and you get a pretty good sense of what the policy implications are, so part of this is packaging, is it now?

Laurie Robinson: Yes, very definitely, and whether it’s in short training films or in the kind of concise, distilled information that at OJP we were doing in crimesolutions.gov, it’s got to be distilled and clear, very clear information whether it is for practitioners or for very busy policy-makers in state legislatures or on Capitol Hill.

Len Sipes: And that’s a perfect transition, and before we get too deep, we’re halfway through the program, very quickly, ladies and gentlemen, we are talking to Laurie Robinson, the former Assistant Attorney General for the United States currently at George Mason University at the Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Criminology, Law and Society – http://cls.gmu.edu or simply search in your search engine of preference – before I said Google, I guess I shouldn’t do that – your search engine of preference, George Mason and Criminology. Laurie, one of the things that I really am very impressed with is crimesolutions.gov and the other data bases that you’ve put together to take research and break it down to its simplest possible forms, even to the point of a color-coded system – green for it works, yellow for promising, and red, no it didn’t work – and you provide the summations thereby anybody can go to crimesolutions.gov and related clearing houses and get a very quick summation of what research works and what research doesn’t, and it’s taken us decades to do it and you did it. Talk to me about it.

Laurie Robinson: Well, this is something that I had had in mind way back to the time when I was in academia up at the University of Pennsylvania after I’d left the Justice Department the first time, and sometimes when you leave a job, you kind of kick yourself, “Why didn’t I do such-and-such when I was in that position?” – And rarely do we have the time to kind of go back and have a second chance to do something. Here I did have that second chance so really from the first day or two I was back in the Justice Department, I pulled the staff together and I said, “We’re going to set up this what-works clearing house,” and you know, I’d been thinking about it throughout the time I was at Penn and so I had a pretty clear vision of what the goal would be but I did not have the details about exactly what it would look like. And I have to credit Phelan Wyrick and Brett Donahue and others on the OJP career staff for putting that together, and they worked with a number of well-known criminologists as the experts on how to define which studies would qualify as being the kind of determiners of what would go into which category, so they turned to real experts in the field as to how to make those determinations. But I’m very happy with the result, and it’s something that will be a continually evolving library of resources. It’s not a finite, closed kind of catalogue, and it’s something on which OJP wants to have continuing feedback, so if there are ways to improve it, I know that Mary Lou and others at OJP would welcome that kind of feedback from the field.

Len Sipes: Well crimesolutions.gov, it’s something everybody should go to. Again, it is simplicity. It is taking extraordinarily, extraordinarily complex research and breaking it down to its simplest forms. If you want to go ahead and read the full-blown research, if you’re interested in methodology, if you’re interested in terms of how the research was put together, that is made available to you, but the summation in terms of what works and what doesn’t, and what the properties are, are neatly summarized in crimesolutions.gov.

Laurie Robinson: Yes. Oh, absolutely.

Len Sipes: Yeah, okay. That was my point, and it gets over to all of the issues that we’re going to be talking about because, you know, you and I in the past have talked about, again, reaching out to the practitioner, making it easy, providing the technical assistance, looking at training, looking at the effectiveness of training – all the things that the Department of Justice has done. So I mean the funding part of it, the summation of the research, looking at new ways to make complex research simpler, how do we do training, is it effective, how does the criminal justice system do training, is it effective – what’s the lessons from all of that? What are the lessons learned because in terms of law enforcement, you know, one time you and I talked about, hey, there’s a focus on people and places. It’s not necessarily mass arrests, it’s not necessarily arrest for the sake of arrest, it’s a focus on people and places, and that’s what the research has to say, and that’s one of the lessons through technical assistance and training that OJP transmits to the field, correct?

Laurie Robinson: Yes, that is correct, and I have often felt, and I’ve probably shared this with you in the past, Len, that the technical assistance money is the best-spent federal money over the some forty years of the LEAA and OJP Program. But one of the things is, you and I as we’ve spoken prior to this radio show have spoken about kind of the breadth of my experience and such, and one of the things that I have been contemplating is that if I were to think about the kind of programs over time, you know, one of the things, if I could wave a wand on something that I wish I had done more of when I was at OJP – and by the way, I told Eric Holder I’m never coming back for a round three. I think I’ve done [PH 0:20:32] enough in my two stints at the Justice Department.

Len Sipes: Never say never, Laurie.

Laurie Robinson: But if I could wave a wand, I think that, you know, I would have liked to have funded more evaluative research, more evaluation of the effectiveness more broadly of training and technical assistance. I think that it would be beneficial to have more rigorous evaluation of their effectiveness. I think we have a very good anecdotal sense and some research on this but not enough, not enough research particularly probably on technical assistance.

Len Sipes: Right.

Laurie Robinson: We have a very good sense about it and we have some kind of narrow research results on that but I think that could be an effective thing.

Len Sipes: The other thing is that, you know, there was at one time an awful lot of conferences where you brought leaders in the criminal justice system together. I went to a gathering of directors of public information for correctional agencies in Aurora, Colorado, under the auspices of the National Institute of Corrections, where I spent three days teaching public relations and social media, and you know, interacting with these 50 individuals and more from the territories, the richness of that interaction, the richness of the group, the discussions, the friendships that you make, and the information exchanges that continues afterwards to me is enormously important. I learned so much from them and hopefully they learned a little bit from me. But the budget for or the circumstances within the Department of Justice in terms of the conferences seems to have taken a step back.

Laurie Robinson: Yes, I agree with you on that. As we reflect back in fact, again, on the kind of four decades of the LEAA and OJP program, I think we could agree that subtle leadership on training through these kinds of conferences, these national or regional conferences, has been just an important part of the mission of the Federal Criminal Justice Assistance Program over that entire 40-year span, and having been around for a good part of that period, I think that federal leadership in bringing people together as you’re referencing, Len, has just been vital in the growing professionalism of the criminal justice field and the growth of the criminal justice field in areas like turning much more to science. When we compare the state of the policing profession, for example, to where it was 20 or 30 years ago, it is night and day, and part of that is of course because of the growth of kind of this national profession, and federal leadership has been a key role in that. So it does trouble me, it troubles me a great deal, when the federal support for national conferences is diminished, and one example too is to see the National Institute of Justice, NIJ, decide not to hold their national science conference, their NIJ conference this coming summer. This is an institute and for once, for the first time in many, many years, NIJ, because of these cutbacks, is not going to be holding it. I think that’s a very unfortunate, unfortunate decision.

Len Sipes: The bottom line in terms of listeners is that there has been an enormous change in the criminal justice system. I started out a long time ago when I left the police department and got my variety of college degrees, ending up at the Department of Justice’s Clearing Counsel as a Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention, so I’ve been an observer/participant of the federal criminal justice system for 30, 40 years – there’s been enormous C-change in terms of the effectiveness of criminal justice agencies around the agency, how community corrections operates, how parole and probation operates, how law enforcement operates, how the courts operate, how juvenile justice systems operate, and that efficiency which I think has significantly contributed to an historic 20 years almost continual decline in crime is due to the quality of the criminal justice system, and I think you can say it’s due to the quality of agencies like the Office of Justice Programs and the related programs. I think you guys have led the technical assistance, research, and funding to try new techniques within the criminal justice system. I think you guys can take a bow from the standpoint that you’ve led dramatic changes in how we police and how we correct people, how we incarcerate. You all have led that charge which is I think correlated to some degree with that almost continuous 20-year reduction in crime.

Laurie Robinson: Well, I think that the leadership from career staff, and I hope throughout the time from the political leadership as well, has been a big contributor. – And by the way, I am, as I said earlier, I’m quite a budget hawk and wanting to see very careful stewardship of federal dollars, so federal money around conferences has to be very scrupulously managed but it is important to bring people together for training. It’s an important part of the federal leadership function, in my view.

Len Sipes: Well, I’m not going to disagree with you at all. It is also interesting that the Bureau of Justice Statistics put out a report recently about an 18% uptick increase in violent crime – I just wanted to ask you about that before we close the program – 11% increase in property crime. Does that create any concern because I know in the past, just because it goes up one particular year does not mean it’s a trend?

Laurie Robinson: Yeah, I’ve certainly noted that. Because it was not across the board and because – as Rick Rosenfeld, the noted the criminologist, commented – that you’re dealing with relatively small numbers which can translate into larger percentages, I’m not sure for one year that we should be greatly alarmed but we should follow it closely and see what next year brings.

Len Sipes: Sure. It was principally assaults and not robberies and not rapes.

Laurie Robinson: Correct, absolutely correct, that it’s not in all categories but we should be, as they say, watching it like a hawk and see what comes in the coming year.

Len Sipes: Final words, Laurie. We have one more minute to go. I mean, I think we’ve talked about just about everything we wanted to do. Every state out there, every jurisdiction out there is complaining bitterly about the lack of money coming into the criminal justice system. Your focus on what works, what is evidence-based, is what allows them to get the biggest possible bang out of their scarce criminal justice dollars, so that the last question.

Laurie Robinson: Yes. What I want to do, though, is turn to this: when I see the kinds of students that are not coming, in my case at George Mason, to want to study in this area, and the students I’m working with are ones who want to go into the practice and policy side, it gives me great optimism, Len. These are students who are of course very interested in the evidence-based approaches but it gives me optimism – optimism about the future and our ability to deal even in tough-budge times with what’s coming down the road.

Len Sipes: Okay, Laurie, and you’ve got the final word. Ladies and gentlemen, today we’ve been talking to former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson of the Office of Justice Programs, currently a Professor of the Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at the world-famous George Mason University. You can look at the website there – http://cls.gmu.edu – or you can use your favorite search engine and search George Mason and Criminology. Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms, and we want everybody to have themselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]