From Research to Policy to Practice and Back Again

I have been lucky in my career to have a wonderful professional mentor who is also my friend. Domingo Herraiz, the director of programs at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, told me the most empowering thing I can recall, “Don’t be afraid to fail.” Will Smith has summed up the same advice into a great dictum:  “Fail Early, Fail Often, Fail Forward.

Because of Domingo’s advice, I’ve had the courage to take risks and come up with innovative ideas. In particular, I’ve learned to embrace research. As a former prosecutor and senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ), I admit, it was an adjustment, but, boy, am I glad I was willing to fail.

Having the perspective of a line-prosecutor means I appreciate how hard it is to juggle day-to-day work and integrating research into that practice. Thankfully, I had a good teacher, Laurie Robinson. She was the head of the agency I worked for at USDOJ when the research to practice movement in criminal justice was burgeoning on the scene. My willingness to take risks to support the work of professionals like Laurie allowed me to start embracing research more and more.

Now after doing policy work at a national level for the last decade, I appreciate even more how important research is to making all the work I do, and the work so many prosecutors do, that much more effective. This appreciation has grown throughout my career as I’ve moved from being a front-line practitioner to a policy wonk and self-taught researcher. Now I have the opportunity to pursue my passion and run an entire center at American University dedicated to providing the field translational research for public safety, healthy communities, crime prevention, and changing how we use incarceration. While many in Washington, DC, may make assumptions that research to practice is a natural progression, in my experience, it’s not. Forgetting this key fact leads to the struggles we have with translational research.

I was reminded of this when working with judges recently, sharing research with them on how early appointment of counsel leads to better outcomes for defendants and safer and happier communities.  Because law school doesn’t lay the foundation for integrating research into the legal system, we have to be mindful of the challenge.

I talk often about the need for every citizen to refocus the lens through which we understand criminal justice. This applies also to how we support practitioners in understanding and believing research will improve their local communities. To do this, we should take the time to invest in translation: to understand local culture and practice and do more listening than talking. This is the first step, and it’s where I’m starting with my team here at the Justice Programs Office.

My vision is to build a team in a university setting that can be the glue between research and policy, policy and practice, and back again.

Kim Ball is the director of the Justice Programs Office.