Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson headed the Office of Justice Programs during the Clinton administration and has returned for a second round under President Barack Obama.
OJP is charged with preventing crime through research and development and managing the DOJ’s grant programs. Among the offices Robinson oversees are the National Institute of Justice, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Office for Victims of Crime.
In an interview with Main Justice this week, Robinson talked about the changes since she headed OJP in the 1990s — the added burden of national security work on state and local law enforcement and the evolution of the Internet. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
Main Justice: This is your second stint as the head of the Office of Justice Programs. What changes have you noticed since your return?
Laurie Robinson: In the broader landscape, there have been huge changes coming back in the Post-9/11 era. Not only has the Department changed in that time, obviously with the focus on terrorism and national security, but for our constituency — state and local juvenile justice and tribal communities, state and local law enforcement — is grappling not only with local crime but with the added duties related to homeland security. That’s particularly difficult now in a time of diminished resources, a very stark difference from when I was here in the 90s.
One of the greatest differences from when I was here before was the technology changes in early 2000, the use of the Web was really in its infancy. We now have a much greater ability to reach our constituents. The world has changed in that regard, and I think it’s given us much greater tools to do our work [with] in this regard to complete our mission, which is sharing information and really engaging with our constituents in a two-way conversation…learning from them, and then sharing learning programs, technical assistance and really engaging in [a] partnership with them.
MJ: How have you seen local and state authorities dealing with those added national security challenges?
Robinson: I think it’s been a huge challenge. It’s been a huge challenge that both the last administration and the new administration and the country has grappled with. I think that state and local law enforcement has dealt with it actually very well, but that it remains, as I say, a challenge. They’re on the front lines in this country, as we saw with the Times Square episode in the last few days, you know it’s a challenge that requires alert members of the public, as we saw with the vendors in Times Square, as we saw with state and local law enforcement working hand in hand.
It doesn’t mean that in every instance everything will go like clockwork. But I think that nobody ever said that state and local law enforcement work is easy. I think that people go into this work because the seek challenges and this is one more thing on the plate.
MJ: What are the priorities you’ve set for the Office of Justice Programs?
Robinson: We don’t often have a chance to go back and have a second shot at a job, and I actually have to tell you… I never ever thought I would come back to OJP. I had to have my arm twisted to do this. I had a really nice life in academia and [Attorney General] Eric Holder really leaned on me to come back here. I’m very honored to be back here, and I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m not honored to do this. But coming back in, it’s kind of like with my eyes wide open, and say, ‘Ok. If I’m going to do it, I have some priorities here.’
There are three priorities. One — that we had to strengthen the partnerships with states, localities and the tribes. I thought that had weakened somewhat in recent years. So one of the first things I did here when I came back on Jan. 28, 2009, just a few days after the inauguration on an acting basis. I scheduled a series of listening sessions with constituent organizations across the board — juvenile justice, crime victims, domestic violence. To have them come in and tell us: what’s the agency doing well, what are we not doing well. It’s easy if you’re brand new, you’re not defensive about it.
MJ: What did you hear back?
Robinson: Well we heard a lot of things, we heard everything from ‘You should be doing more to address pre-trial issues’ to ‘You aren’t getting your publications out quickly enough. You aren’t giving us information on rewards in a fast enough fashion. You should be more open about what kind of solicitations are out there.’ It was terrific to get that.
A lot of these groups said they hadn’t been invited in for eight years. So I thought it was really good just to open the doors and have organizations come in.
The second priority is evidence-based approaches. I think you’ve heard Eric Holder speak about this. We’ve had leading scientists nominated to lead both NIJ - National Institute of Justice - and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Both of them - John Laub and Jim Lynch - are awaiting confirmation. I’m always an optimist, I’m hoping they’ll be confirmed within the next weeks. That will be the first time in John Lauden’s case that we’ll have had a criminologist heading the National Institute of Justice since it was created back in 1968 by the Safe Streets Act.
We’re bringing in scientists to speak at NIJ, we’re bringing in scientists to meet with the Attorney General on various topics, and very importantly we’ve launched something called the Evidence Integration Initiative. It’s about [a few] things - one of them is about producing more evidence, because there are a lot of areas in which we don’t have enough research on what really works.
[Another] part is translating the evidence for the field. You can have all types of journal articles, long articles about, for example, domestic violence. But if you’re a small town mayor in Des Moines, Iowa, you don’t have time to go the the library and read those journal articles. You would like to have a page or two that says what I should be doing on drug issues, what should I be doing about cops dealing with domestic violence.
As I look back on my time in the 90s here, that’s one thing I would give myself a low mark on, that we did not do enough distilling of research. So I came back and heaped on the idea that I need to synthesize evidence better or distill it. So we put into the president’s budget request — well we recommended and he put in — two items. One of them is a what works clearinghouse on crime, and the second is a diagnostics center, or what I call a help desk.
The other piece of this is…that Congress has put so many different funding streams into OJP and the COPS office and the Office of Violence Against Women. Alone in OJP, we have over 75 different funding streams. For that mayor in Des Moines to know all those funding streams… that’s asking far too much of them. We need to have one place they can go.
My third priority is to ensure that our grants and grant process is run with integrity, and that the process is fair, transparent, and competitive. There have been issues in the past about whether the process was fully transparent and competitive. I am fully committed to working hand in hand with the Inspector General to make sure this is a process which is not only perceived as open and fair but in fact is.
All of this was not done thoroughly in the past, and we want a transparent system. I’ve written grant applications, a lot of people here have, and I want to make sure we make this a clear and easy system for our constituents. Writing grant applications is not a fun process, so we shouldn’t make it more difficult.
MJ: What sort of new programs are you seeing an interest in funding from the field and in Congress?
Robinson: I’ve actually seen far greater interest at this point than when I was here before on Capitol Hill… in funding evidence-based programs. I’ve seen [it] on both sides of the aisle, which is extraordinarily promising. As an example, Sen. Jeff Sessions…is someone [to] whom I have spoken several times about science-based approaches and he’s been extraordinarily supportive.
Particularly in times when we’re looking at tight federal budgets, people want to ensure that we’re getting the best bang of the buck in federal dollars, in federal spending. And why would we be expending money in programs which haven’t proved to make a difference, particularly in such an important area as crime?
One priority for us, in the president’s budget for 2011 [is] the proposal to devote three percent of OJP’s budget as a set aside for research and statistics. I think that proposal, if approved, would represent a powerful statement of the effect of R & D (research and development) investment by the government in recognizing that we need to invest in preventing and crime.
That’s something that the private industry does - you have to make the initial investments in order to successfully prevent and control disease, and we need to do the same thing in crime.
MJ: The stimulus package meant a lot more work for your office. How did you deal with the influx of grant applications?
Robinson: Just a few weeks after I stepped into the job last year, Congress of course passed the stimulus bill, and we were off and running with $2.7 billion dollars in new money to get out the door. I’m very proud of the fact that within about seven months we were able to get out almost 3,900 grants and get out almost 99 percent of that funding.
The way we were able to do it is that I have here at OJP a remarkable team of career staff. I’d like to particularly mention our career Deputy Assistant Attorney General Beth McGarry. There was a career staff that was in place when I walked in who were already dealing with the potential that if the Recovery Act passed, there would be an increased workload. The Recovery Act funding issued equaled in effect, the workload that OJP would have ordinarily covered in an entire year.
I was so pleased [when] at the end of the summer, when we were getting out all of those grants, [Attorney General Eric Holder] came over to thank the staff and then was willing to have his picture taken with each one of the offices. If you have the time to walk through all the offices and cubicles, you’d see people have these pictures up.
MJ: How closely does the division work with other divisions across the department in relaying problems that are brought to your attention by state and local law enforcement?
Robinson: We work extremely closely with other parts of the department, ranging from the COPS office to the Office of Violence Against Women — who are our colleagues on the grant side in dealing with state and localities — to working very closely with the Criminal Division, the Deputy’s Office, the Associate’s Office.
As an example, we are on one of the working groups on Intellectual Property because of our work on that subject, working with states and localities. We participated on the executive working group that is the link to state attorneys general and state district attorneys. We have the executive office of U.S. Attorneys working in the Criminal Division. We meet regularly with the AGAC, the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee Group of U.S. Attorneys. So every Friday, I’m meeting with the component heads of the component heads, I’m meeting regularly with the Attorney General on things that he and I are working on.
So very regular communication. What that reflects is that Eric Holder has as one of his highest priorities the integration of state and local interests, integrating them into the priorities of the department.
The whole notion of the relationship and importance of that relationship with state and local law enforcement is something that he has embedded throughout the whole structure of the Justice Department. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we’ll get to you when we get to you.’ He communicates that throughout the department about the states and localities being partners in our work. It’s not an afterthought. It’s really very much integral to the way the department operates. The tone for that is really set at the top.