Over the past several weeks, I have attended a number of meetings and conferences in which both practitioners and researchers were present. Over and over, I was reminded that these two groups really do speak in different languages and often have very different philosophies.
At the most recent meeting I truly wished there had been an interpreter present, because the confusion was palpable.
While I am currently working at an academic institution, I am a practitioner at heart. More specifically, I am a prosecutor to my core. I think that having lived in both worlds has provided an opportunity to offer a unique perspective into working to translate between these two groups.
I think some of the confusion stems from the infusion of science into the justice system. “Evidence-based practices” have resulted in hours and hours of trainings in which those on the front lines are introduced to concepts that would normally be part of a graduate-level course in a research institution. While I applaud the advances, I am still a bit skeptical. I am a New Yorker after all.
In a recent exchange with a very well-respected researcher, Dr. Garvin (name changed to protect him) we discussed “best evidence.” The moderator explained that we needed to identify what we considered to be best evidence. Dr. Garvin immediately talked about the gold standard of research — randomized controlled double-blind studies.
When it was my turn, I said, “a videotaped confession” and “DNA matching the perpetrator.” This is when I realized that an interpreter would have been helpful. How can we solve problems when we have very different definitions of such an important term?
In the push to focus on research studies, the value and importance of experience and the realities of the real world have been largely ignored and/or looked down upon.
While a double-blind random controlled research study may be the gold star in research, you will never get those types of optimal conditions on the streets of New York City (or anywhere else for that matter). Unless and until the research community comes to terms with this, we will continue to have this disconnect.
Not just in terms of the words — but also with regard to respect and appreciation of what the other side has to offer. When I arrived at Georgetown, I had no idea that my years of working with victims and offenders would not play a role in what researchers deemed important.
While they considered my cases to be merely “anecdotal evidence,” I knew that they represented powerful examples of real-life crime and victimization. The outcomes of those cases were not dependent on the methodology employed by a researcher — those cases were the result of good detective work and many nights burning the midnight oil preparing the case for trial.
Another tremendous issue in the field is the lack of attention given to victims. In almost every juvenile justice meeting or conference I attend, the entire focus is on the offenders. Having worked on child abuse cases in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, I am well aware that many of the young people in juvenile court were abused and/or neglected as children. In fact, I believe a very real issue is the child welfare to juvenile justice pipeline.
But that doesn’t mean that we ignore the people and/or community. stakeholders who are adversely affected by juvenile offending. There are very real costs to youthful offending and they must be acknowledged.
Too often, young people are given a “pass” because they have grown up in dysfunctional environments. Of course, we must make sure we address that abuse and neglect, but to use it as an excuse is a mistake — especially to that young person. Accountability matters and in fact builds character.
Finally, with all the attention on adolescent brain science in juvenile justice reform, I have seen more fMRI brain scans than I’d care to admit. Once again, I think this ignores a critical element of helping young people make changes in their lives. Focusing solely on brain development without recognizing the importance of connecting with their spirit is a critical mistake.
There are many ways to do this — sports, arts, music, writing, mentors — but we must remember that there is a transformative power in positive emotions. I have seen this happen firsthand so many times that I’ve lost count.
And anyone on the front lines will confirm that this is not just “feel-good” talk — they have seen positive emotions fuel resiliency. The good news is that this has even been confirmed by research studies (including one conducted by George Vaillant at Harvard University).
So, for the time being, I am going to try to build this bridge between research and practice. Since my dad was a steelworker and built bridges in New York City for 35 years, maybe this is exactly where I am supposed to be.
I appreciate the value and strides that have been made in the research community and I am trying to share this work with the practitioners across the country. At the same time, I am doing my part in trying to get the research community to understand and recognize the importance of real-life experience.
As Brene Brown has said, “Stories are data with soul.” Real stories may be the “lowest form of evidence” in academic institutions, but on the front lines of our communities, stories have enormous power. Stories offer real hope and inspiration.
We are all in this work because we care about kids. Now it’s time to start finding ways to collaborate so we bring the best of both worlds to the kids who are depending on us.
Susan Broderick is project director of Georgetown University’s National Juvenile Justice Prosecution Center.
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