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Remarks of Laurie Robinson, Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs

Juvenile Justice System Improvement Project:
A Comprehensive Strategy for Evidence-Based Reform Symposium

Friday, December 3, 2010
Washington, DC

       Thank you so much, Shay. It's great to be here.

       Before I begin, I have to embarrass Shay a little. As many of you know, he and I worked together at OJP in the 90s during the Clinton/Reno era, and Shay was truly my guiding light on juvenile justice issues. As those who know him will agree, when you talk to Shay, you definitely get the sense you're dealing with someone who not only knows his stuff - inside and out - but who cares about it, deeply. It's been 10 years since we shared quarters at the Justice Department, and I still turn to him for advice and guidance. Shay Bilchik is truly a treasure!

       (Sorry, Shay, but you should have known I'd get personal.)

       One of the reasons Shay and I have always gotten along so well - and worked so well together - is that we share a passion for making our systems of justice smarter. The 90s were a very different time - as you know - in terms of youth crime. When we came to OJP in 1993, juvenile arrests for serious crimes were near their peak. For that matter, young people were being victimized at incredible rates.

       There was talk about young "super predators" roaming the streets - kids who would as soon shoot you as say "hello." We know a lot of that talk was generated more by fear than facts, but the fear was very real.

       Things are much different now. Juvenile arrests for violent crimes have been on the decline since 1994, with the exception of a slight uptick in 2005 and 2006. Fear of juvenile crime - particularly gang violence - is still an issue - and many jurisdictions continue to wrestle with difficult challenges around youth violence. But we're now in a much better position, as far as the data are concerned, than we were 15 years ago. Now it's possible to talk about juvenile justice in much more measured terms.

       But unfortunately, crime trends in the late 80s and early 90s too often left us with a legacy of policies that centered less on what's best for juveniles and community safety, and more on retribution and punishment. This set us back a bit, but we were fortunate that there were people like Shay and Buddy Howell and others to keep reminding us of the importance of balance in the system.

       Certainly, serious sanctions were sometimes called for - as they are still - but those with clearer heads kept us focused on the larger goal. They forced us to confront the question, "what benefits can we expect from policies that aim solely to punish?"

       In the midst of this debate, OJJDP was able to put together the Comprehensive Strategy for Serious, Violent, and Chronic Juvenile Offenders, thanks in large part to Buddy Howell's and John Wilson's great work.

       The Strategy provides a framework for a continuum of services in two tiers - prevention programs targeted to at-risk youth; and intervention programs, using graduated sanctions, targeted at delinquent youth. This gave practitioners a tool for making disposition decisions that take into account the developmental trajectories of system-involved youth. In other words, it provided a mechanism for marrying actual risk and treatment needs with appropriate services and supervision.

       One of the things it did was recognize, even at the time, that most serious crime is committed by a small group of offenders - and it's really only those offenders for whom strict supervisory control is appropriate. Not every at-risk young person is a powder keg waiting to explode. There are lots of points along the way where interventions - appropriately structured and targeted - can be effective before it's too late.

       We talk a lot these days about using evidence to inform decision-making. The Comprehensive Strategy was an early example - a pioneer, really - of a framework for approaching crime and delinquency based on the most relevant evidence related to offending patterns, co-occurring problem behaviors, risk factors, and developmental pathways. And it remains a powerful tool for helping practitioners and policymakers structure their responses.

       One of the most difficult challenges, in my view - and this is across the board in criminal and juvenile justice - is figuring out how to use the evidence we have, and apply it at the local level.

       We have a great deal of knowledge at our disposal - from research, from evaluations, from statistics. We still need to continue generating more high quality evidence, but lack of information isn't our real problem. Our dilemma is what to do with it. And figuring this out is tricky.

       Professor Lipsey, Buddy Howell, and their colleagues write that "[r]esearch that tells us what works is only a beginning point. Implementing those programs in an existing service system, while retaining their effectiveness, is yet another matter." I couldn't agree more.

       Translating evidence into practice has to be done carefully and methodically. It's not a simple matter of pulling a brand name program off the shelf and taking it back to your community. And you probably don't need to be reminded that those programs can be very costly to implement - and they may not even make sense in your case.

       Every situation is different - the crime problem is different, resources vary, the system's structure isn't uniform across jurisdictions. I doubt I need to tell anyone in this room that it's not realistic to expect a one-size-fits-all approach.

       I'm sure many of you have confronted this situation in your work, when locally, home grown programs are not as valued as the "gold standard" programs - even when their outcomes might be equally good.

       Shay shared an example of this with me recently. He described a jurisdiction in which the judges were demanding gold standard programs as dispositional options, even though the mental health department was able to document comparable treatment effects from programs developed by local providers.

       I think to really move the juvenile justice field forward, we'll have to become sophisticated in our ability to distinguish between high-quality and low-quality evidence. There's no way around the fact that we'll all have to become more fluent in the language of research, statistics, and evaluation. I think my agency - OJP - has a real responsibility to help with this.

       One of OJP's most important obligations - and one of my personal priorities - is to make sure that the field has the best information available to do its job most effectively. This means, not just supporting research and evaluation, but translating it for use - in other words, integrating evidence into the day-to-day work of public safety professionals.

       Shortly after I came back to OJP, I launched what we call the Evidence Integration Initiative. E2I, as we refer to it, has three aims:

  • First, to improve the quantity and quality of evidence that we generate through our research, evaluation, and statistical functions.
  • Second, to better integrate evidence in program and policy decisions.
  • And third, to improve the TRANSLATION of evidence into practice.

       This is an OJP-wide effort - it cuts across all our bureaus and offices - from our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, to our National Institute of Justice, to our Bureau of Justice Statistics and Bureau of Justice Assistance. This way, we can more effectively integrate research and data in our programs and help bridge the gap between knowledge and practice.

       A central focus of E2I is getting information out to the field in a format that's accessible and useful for practitioners and policymakers. So one of the critical elements of E2I is something we're calling a Crime Solutions Resource Center, which will be an on-line clearinghouse of information about what works and what's promising.

       Hand in hand with that will be a "Help Desk" that'll be available to assist jurisdictions in adapting evidence-based approaches to their own needs. We're asking for funding for both these efforts in the President's budget request for 2011, and the Senate and House bills support both.

       And I also want to mention that the Attorney General recently appointed a new 18-member Science Advisory Board. I'm very excited about this. It will, among other things, serve as a link between OJP's science agencies and the practitioner community. This isn't part of E2I, but it is, of course, a huge part of our commitment to scientific integrity in criminal and juvenile justice. And I'm very pleased that Professor Lipsey is one of the appointed members. So clearly, the issues you deal with every day will be well represented on this Board.

       And this gives me a nice opening to mention the groundbreaking work that Dr. Lipsey has done and continues to do on behalf of children and youth. His meta-analysis of some 550 studies really is FOUNDATIONAL. He's distilled the characteristics of effective programs and approaches, which is a giant step toward an evidence-based juvenile justice system. He shows us that programs that take a therapeutic approach are more effective than programs that primarily emphasize control, and he identifies basic principles that help ensure success.

       But he goes further with his Standard Program Evaluation Protocol - or SPEP - for short. As he and his colleagues point out in their paper, one of our biggest challenges is taking an effective program out of the "relatively controlled circumstances of the research trials" and maintaining the "critical features that underlie its success."

       The SPEP will help us to meet that challenge by comparing local programs with what's been found to be effective in research. In other words, this is a guide for identifying and designing, and then evaluating successful programs in a local context - something I know the juvenile justice system desperately wants and needs.

       And so I'm pleased that OJJDP has stepped forward to support this work by helping to link the SPEP with the Comprehensive Strategy. I'm also grateful that the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute is showing such leadership in sponsoring this symposium, which is the launching point for this effort.

       We're making this investment with the expectation that it will lead other partners to join with us. In doing so, we'll be part of an effort to demonstrate how the SPEP and the Comprehensive Strategy can be brought together to create an evidence-based juvenile justice operating system in three pilot sites.

       I think this is a great opportunity for all of us - those of us in the policy field and those of you who work in the juvenile justice system every day. Shay is right that the "field has been living in an evidence-based and outcome-driven world for the past decade." The difficulty has been in leveraging our knowledge to better serve our youth and our communities. The tools Professor Lipsey and Buddy Howell have given us can, when used together, help us meet and overcome this challenge.

       I look forward to the day when the entire field of juvenile justice operates based on a solid understanding of the evidence. We're on our way there now - and all of you are to be commended for helping to take us there.

       I thank you for all that you do, and I wish you well in your discussions today.


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