The Nebraska Center for Justice Research (NCJR) is a proposed multi-disciplinary research center being considered for approval by the Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education. It was approved by the University of Nebraska Board of Regents in July 2014. The Center is the culmination of a dozen years of technical assistance, training, and research provided by the research units of UNO’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. The first research unit, the Juvenile Justice Institute (JJI), was officially created by by the Unicameral in 2002. Due to the need for data analysis, research, and evaluation across the state, JJI expanded to the point of encompassing justice issues that were broader than just juvenile justice, so in 2009 the Consortium for Crime and Justice Research (CCJR) was established as a partner research unit to address this broader mission. Dr. Hank Robinson directed JJI and CCJR through 2011 and Dr. Ryan Spohn took over leadership in January 2012.
In the summer of 2013, CPACS Dean John Bartle initiated the process of transformation CCJR into a multidisciplinary research center. The timing was fortuitous, as the Judiciary Committee of the Nebraska Legislature was contemplating the benefits of such a center to collaborate with policy makers by using data, research, and evidence to identify and implement effective alternates to incarceration. In January of 2014, facing a prison system over 150% of rated capacity, Senators Ashford and Krist sat down with representatives from UNMC and UNO to discuss the creation of such a center. The proposal developed by Dr. Spohn and Dean Bartle was viewed as a promising outline for a university-based research center that would provide research and technical assistance for the Nebraska Legislature. The Nebraska Center for Justice Research was introduced by LB 907 on January 15th, 2014, signed by the Legislature on April 10th, approved by the Governor on April 16th, and becomes effective July 2014.
The mission of the Nebraska Center for Justice Research is to develop and sustain research capacity internal to the State of Nebraska to assist the Legislature in research, evaluation, and policymaking to reduce recidivism, promote the use of evidence-based practices in corrections, and improve public safety. Since moving to UNO from UNL in January of 2012, Dr. Spohn has worked in this capacity in leading strategic planning initiatives for the Nebraska Crime Commission’s administration of federal criminal justice and victimization programs such as the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) funds and the S.T.O.P. (Services-Training-Officers-Prosecutors) Violence Against Women and Children Act (VAWA), providing training to local professionals on topics such as the use and implementation of evidence-based practices and the development of performance measures for assessing outcomes and agency performance. Additionally, Dr. Spohn has also been involved in numerous evaluations of local justice agencies and non-profits. Previously, he has worked with the Nebraska Legislature in producing the Nebraska Sex Offender Registry Study in 2013.
One of the most rewarding features of this work for Dr. Spohn is the inter-connectedness of the roles of service to the community, research, and student learning. Nearly all of the research and evaluation activities conducted by the research units are embedded in the community, addressing real-world needs of justice and social service agencies. Often labeled “applied research” or “action research”, this work applies rigorous methodologies to community problems and presents results in a form that is useful to practitioners and agency leaders. Moreover, nearly all of these projects involve graduate research assistants from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, providing learning opportunities where students can address timely community issues by applying the knowledge and research skills they learn in the classroom. In describing the work of the new Center, Dr. Spohn states, “The most exciting aspect of my job is knowing, at the end of the day, that I’m engaged in the community and that I am making a difference in peoples’ lives.”
The immediate task of the new Nebraska Center for Justice Research is to address over-crowding in the Nebraska prison system through collaboration with the Council of State Governments, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization serving state governments. NCJR is tasked to work with the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, as well as the Justice Reinvestment Working Group (also created by LB 907) to assess the causes of prison growth and corresponding alternatives to incarceration that keep offenders out of prisons, provide necessary treatment and rehabilitation, promote public safety, reduce recidivism, and save tax dollars. Regarding the issue of prison overcrowding in Nebraska, Dr. Spohn states, “The Nebraska correctional system is at 158% capacity and will only be stretched further by the current process of correctly calculating mandatory minimum sentences. This process will keep inmates behind bars longer and even return some former offenders back to our prisons. Dangerous, violent offenders should be behind bars, but we must find ways to rehabilitate non-violent offenders in the community in a way that protects public safety and conserves tax dollars. This will be a considerable endeavor in terms of resources, time, training, and implementation, however it will ultimately be more cost-effective than building new state correctional facilities.”