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Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the National Institute of Justice National Research Conference


Arlington, VA
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Amy. I am very happy to join you and Nancy today. I want to commend you and the entire OJP leadership team for putting science at the top of our nation’s public safety and justice agenda.

Nancy, thank you for your work leading NIJ and for creating this opportunity for researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to gather under the same roof to discuss some of the most important criminal justice issues of our time. For 55 years, NIJ has been serving as the research, development, and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ’s efforts to improve knowledge and understanding of crime and justice issues through science and to ensure that information reaches decision-makers on the ground, could not be more important or more timely.

I also want to express my appreciation to everyone here for all you do to make that important connection between knowledge and practice. The public safety challenges we are facing in this country are complex.

There are no quick answers or simple solutions. And we know all too well that when we don’t make the effort to properly study causes, and when we fail to thoughtfully anticipate consequences, we are doomed to short-lived success, at best. Sometimes, we may even do more harm than good.

But when we do take the time and effort to study initiatives, programs, and services, it can help bring meaningful and lasting change. Research has shown us the value of diversion and alternatives to detention as ways to improve outcomes and increase public safety. Research has played a key role in shifting the full burden of responding to behavioral health issues away from law enforcement and toward trained treatment providers in appropriate cases. And research has helped us take note of the power of community-based actors in securing public health and safety.

These are encouraging developments that are reaping rewards, and we can thank researchers and science-minded professionals like all of you for putting us and keeping us on the right path.

We are generating momentum toward a justice system that is evidence-based and, thus, more just and effective, and we must continue to build on this progress. You have heard and will hear throughout this conference how researchers and practitioners are working together to address many of our most pressing problems. From my perspective, there are some sizeable additional challenges that research can help us meet – and thanks to NIJ investments, we are already taking the necessary first steps.

I’ll begin with policing.

Law enforcement is in the midst of a recruitment and retention crisis. Research highlights the urgency of diversity as a focus for recruitment and retention, including gender diversity. Women make up just 12% of our nation’s officers, and only 3% of police executives – numbers that have remained stagnant for decades. Yet studies show that we have so much to gain by having more women in law enforcement. With decisions and policies informed by that evidence, we can look toward a more inclusive and promising future for the profession.

As law enforcement leaders across the country fight to retain qualified and experienced personnel, that takes a toll on morale and officer health. Ripple effects extend into communities, fraying the bonds of police-community trust, which in turn undermines public safety.

Research has shown that the greatest source of occupational strain for law enforcement officers isn’t trauma, but routine stressors like overtime work, low pay, chronic fatigue  and a lack of emotional and psychological support.

Research from NIJ confirms that shift work — one of the traditional mainstays of policing – is one of the greatest contributors to poor officer health. Research like that helps better our understanding of the issue and inform solutions.

We also need evidence to help us assess what we can and should expect from the police. Law enforcement officers and agents today are called on to do more than ever. America’s ongoing overdose crisis and the growing prevalence of mental health disorders are driving more and more people into contact with the justice system, putting additional strain on our public safety officers.

Many communities are deploying models of response that pair law enforcement with behavioral health specialists. And through NIJ, the Justice Department is prioritizing research around community response models as a critical part of our investment in these strategies.

NIJ is making $9 million available to support evaluations of these approaches and to provide greater insights into law enforcement wellness and accountability measures.

Another way to relieve the burden on police is to focus on community-based and community-led responses to violent crime. Research shows that by engaging with the community to develop violence reduction strategies, we can benefit from the expertise and relationships of residents and thus be more effective. Our Community Based Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative provides the resources to implement these models and includes a meaningful research and evaluation component.

Second, corrections is another area that is ripe for research-informed strategies.

One effort I am thrilled to see coming to fruition is a partnership between NIJ and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which recently released a joint request for proposals (RFP) to examine all facets of the use of restrictive housing in federal facilities. The RFP calls for essential and comprehensive research on BOP’s use of restrictive housing and the identification of recommendations to reduce its use. This is the type of work that makes me proud to serve in this Justice Department, alongside leaders like Nancy and Director Peters of the BOP, who understand the importance of studying and addressing these issues.

As in policing, we know that strategies to retain correctional officers can benefit from improvements in workplace culture and climate. I am excited to share that just moments ago, NIJ and BJA released complementary solicitations, for a total of $7 million, to support research on and — we hope — transformation of correctional culture and climate.

BJA is seeking a provider to support agencies’ efforts to create safer and more humane environments for people who work, visit, and are confined there. And NIJ is inviting in rigorous evaluations of these models. In fact, this conference features one such model, Restoring Promise, that NIJ-sponsored research has found to be effective in improving conditions while reducing violence. I am excited about the potential of both of these solicitations, and the collective impact they will have on the field.

Finally, there is another crisis we are looking to researchers to help us confront. Sadly, crimes fomented by hate and bias are on the rise in this country. Data from the FBI show that hate crime incidents rose almost 12% in 2021, the most recent year for which we have federal data. We desperately need a better understanding of where hate originates and what leads to its violent expression.

With funding from NIJ, researchers gathered almost three decades worth of hate crimes data and analyzed it to help identify the pathways to the commission of these crimes. They found a wide diversity of motives, but certain patterns emerge that can give us important clues to prevention. For example, people who committed mass violent hate attacks were found to have high rates of poor work performance and documented mental health issues.

Findings from these and other studies can help us tailor our policies and practices and point us in the direction of solutions. The Department of Justice has sought to combat unlawful acts of hate since its founding more than a century-and-a-half ago. We are building on that work with new tools and funding resources, including more than $3 million in additional funding available for research and evaluation to better understand what works to prevent hate crimes. NIJ’s research solicitation is now open and will close at the end of this month.

The challenges we face in criminal justice — from improving the health and integrity of the law enforcement profession to building police-community trust to rooting out hate—will require a focused and collective commitment on the part of each and every one of us, and we will need to lean on evidence to guide our decisions.

Public safety and equal justice are goals worthy of the most rigorous study and deliberation, and you are all key to the success of this enterprise. I am grateful for your wisdom and leadership, for your dedication to applying evidence to action, and for all you do to build an informed, effective and humane system of justice — one that serves every American equally and well.

Thank you.

Updated May 23, 2023