School of Criminal Justice Alumna, Now a Federal Leader, Shaped by RU-N Education
Thirty years ago, when Rutgers-Newark alumna Nancy La Vigne entered the field of criminal justice, policy makers paid little attention to data.
“Research and evidence were not important at all,’’ she recalled. “It wasn’t about science or effectiveness, it was about retribution. It was about being tough and 'keeping our streets safe.'’’
By the mid-90s that changed, and La Vigne, a 1996 graduate of RU-N’s School of Criminal Justice (SCJ) doctoral program, moved to the forefront of a trend in using research to prevent crime and recidivism.
Today, she is a widely recognized criminal justice policy expert who last month was appointed by President Biden to direct the National Institute of Justice, a component of U.S Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which works to reduce crime, assist victims, and advance racial equity in the administration of justice.
As the head of the institute, La Vigne will lead the Justice Department’s research, development and evaluation agency.
“Her grasp of the complex issues behind America’s crime and justice problems is second to none,’’ said Office of Justice Programs Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Amy L. Solomon. “Dr. La Vigne has dedicated her enormous talent to bridging the divide between researchers, practitioners and policymakers, helping justice system professionals apply science and data to our nation’s most pressing public safety challenges.’’
La Vigne’s approach was shaped at the School of Criminal Justice, which she chose among several top-tier PhD programs after graduating with a Master’s degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Texas. “It has long had a history of applying research that can make a difference in the world,’’ she said. “It trains people in the development of research that results in changing public policy. That made it no contest for me.”
For School of Criminal Justice Dean Bill McCarthy, La Vigne’s scholarship and track record as a leader embody the “pinnacle” of the school’s mission.
“Our goal is to change the way people think about crime and justice and the way we do the work of justice. Director La Vigne is exemplary of this transformation and we’re thrilled that she will lead NIJ, especially at this critical moment when there are so many criminal justice issues. We’re looking forward to learning how she will lead the institute in meeting these challenges,’’ he said.
La Vigne, who grew up in Montclair, graduated from Smith College with a major in Government and a drive to shape public policy. She was drawn to criminal justice after working in Washington, DC, for a gun control advocacy organization. “I got to know victims of crime, those who have lost loved ones to gun violence, and law enforcement leaders in favor of common-sense gun control measures,’’ she said.
Her career has included leadership positions at the Justice Policy Center and the Urban Institute, a nonprofit social policy research organization, where she teamed with colleagues to conduct a groundbreaking study on prison re-entry. Their research included interviews with more than 1,500 incarcerated people across four sites before and after their release from prison.
The findings revealed that re-entry is a process, not an isolated point in time, and the support of close friends and family can play a key role in preventing recidivism. “It’s not like you’re released from prison, there’s balloons and cake, and then two days later, you’re ready to search for a job.,’’ said La Vigne. “People need time to acclimate after the trauma of incarceration, and family members need to understand that.’’
As a result of the study, the institute advised Department of Corrections officials to educate family members on how to offer support.
La Vigne believes it’s critical to incorporate the voices and knowledge of people who are affected by the criminal justice system, not just officials. “I want to see more of what I’m terming ‘inclusive research,’ she said. “If you are researching probation you need to be hearing from probation officers, yes, but also, people who are on probation, victims/survivors, employers, and others who have been affected or could be helpful.’’
She sees that perspective embraced at the School of Criminal Justice, where faculty members Todd Clear, Sarah Lageson and Jennifer Yang have co-edited a special issue of the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice comprised entirely of articles written by people who have experienced incarceration first hand.
When it comes to the application of data, La Vigne is impressed by SCJ efforts like the Newark Public Safety Collaborative, which works with community members and police to reduce crime by pinpointing areas where violence and other crimes are more likely to occur, such as near ATMs and liquor stores.
La Vigne also praised the Racial Democracy in Criminal Justice Network, which began in 2006 and has been co-directed by faculty member Jody Miller. The Network is dedicated to supporting the academic success of junior faculty from underrepresented group and assuring that their perspectives and approaches on crime and justice reach relevant audiences.
“It’s a good example of something I’m very passionate about,” says La Vigne, who plans on visiting SCJ next month. “The School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers has long attracted a very diverse student body. The network was an acknowledgement of how important it is to support scholars of color as they navigate white-led programs and institutions. As director of NIJ, I want to ensure that research is conducted through an equity lens, recognizing the connection between race and inequality, the disparate impacts.”
In her new role, she also wants to explore better ways of conveying information to practitioners who are best positioned to make improvements to criminal justice systems, programs, and practices. “There’re a lot of things that people are doing to make findings accessible to broad audiences, but does your average police chief use that info? We need to bring the decision makers into the room and ask them ‘How do you discern what evidence is credible, who do you listen to? How do we translate research so that it’s actionable?”