Invited articles

Psychology and the National Institute of Justice

This article discusses potential opportunities for public service psychologists at the National Institute of Justice.

By Alix M. McLearen, PhD

I have spent my career moving through positions of increasing responsibility at the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), landing in our national headquarters in 2010. While I could expound on the amazing and diverse career opportunities offered in the BOP, my purpose in this article is to talk about another agency, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in an executive development program within the Department of Justice, and as a result, spent the better part of 2013 acting as NIJ's Associate Director. NIJ's structure involves 6 offices, each led by a director. My role was to supervise three of these offices, and work closely with the others. I worked briefly for Criminal Justice giant and Stockholm prize winner John Laub, who then returned to academia while Greg Ridgeway, a seasoned RAND statistician, took over the helm. I did strategic planning, media relations, and international partnership work. I also became familiar with the agency's research portfolio.

NIJ houses three science offices covering forensic, physical, and social domains. Key criminal justice developments guided by NIJ experts have included such influential products as “Five Things Law Enforcement Executives Can Do To Make a Difference,” which highlighted robust findings such as the importance of officer wellness in quality policing. Recently, an NIJ grantee was awarded a national evaluation honor for her work improving sexual assault kit outcomes.

In my new role, I quickly became aware that so much of this research – even the forensic work – was heavily rooted in psychology. While NIJ hosts a number of educated and credentialed folks, I noted there were only a few psychologists on staff. One such person is social science analyst Carrie Mulford, a community and developmental psychologist who earned her doctorate from the University of Virginia. Carrie manages a research portfolio covering such topics as elder abuse and relationship and teen dating violence. She is the co-author of an often-cited article on gender parity in teen dating violence, which explains why adult models of interpersonal violence may not apply to adolescents.

Each time I learned some new facet of NIJ, I asked myself, ‘why haven't any of my psychologist friends and colleagues heard of this place?' Perhaps that is an overstatement – of course we have heard of NIJ. As I worked on press releases and responses to congressional inquiries related to firearms research in the wake of the Newtown shooting, I learned more and more about the multiple, broad and meaningful portfolio of NIJ sponsored and published studies. Surely, psychologists knew about these studies, but why hadn't psychologists been conducting these studies, I wondered?

I am not suggesting everyone immediately apply for a job as an NIJ scientist, although worse things could happen. NIJ scientists and grantees generate amazing research ideas and guide some truly impactful criminal justice research addressing such mental health and public service topics as identifying domestic radicalization tactics and optimizing shift length for police officers. A 2013 grant solicitation was specifically focused on proposals exploring offender decision-making.

Certainly, one way to become more familiar with the work of NIJ is for public service psychologists to apply for one of the many funding opportunities which become available annually. Not all funding awards go to academia. In fact, one solicitation targets researcher-practitioner partnerships. In 2009, Los Angeles city and county law enforcement collaborated with university faculty, winning one of these grants to study the prosecution of sexual assault cases.

Beyond conducting research, there are other ways public service psychologists could easily become involved with NIJ, and both are beneficial to the individual psychologist and to the field. While at NIJ, I was responsible for reviewing proposals and awarding funding to the most meritorious ideas across the science domains. Each proposal must be evaluated by researchers and practitioners, and many Division 18 members would be well-qualified for these roles. You even get paid.

NIJ also conducts a variety of professional events, such as workgroups and other topical sessions designed to evaluate the needs of the field. The agency is even hosting a psychologist as a fellow this year, and they do fund practitioners and researchers in residence on various topics from time to time.

My time at NIJ has ended for now, and I have returned to the BOP full of new perspectives and information. I look forward to my own continued collaboration with NIJ, and hope others will consider the agency as they plan future science endeavors.