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Q & A: An interview with Sarah V. Hart: director of the national institute of justice.

Prior to being sworn in as director of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in August 2001, Sarah V. Hart served as chief counsel for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) for six years. During this time, Hart provided substantial assistance to the Judiciary Committee in drafting the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) and its November 1997 amendments. She also sewed 16 years as a prosecutor in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, where she sewed as lead counsel for nine years in federal litigation involving the Philadelphia Prison System. In addition, Hart has sewed as vice chair of the Legal Affairs Committee of the American Correctional Association, chair of the Sentencing and Corrections Subcommittee of the Federalist Society, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the Crime Victims Law Institute.

What are your goals as director of NIJ?

I am committed to ensuring that NIJ supports relevant, objective and reliable research that can be used by policymakers and practitioners. Because of NIJ's relatively modest research budget, it is essential that the research we support has the potential to impact current issues in the criminal justice community.

NIJ has a strong technology research and development program. In addition to supporting the important work already under way, I am committed to using technology to its fullest potential to make prisons safer. My years with the Pennsylvania DOC made a tremendous impression on me. I appreciate just how difficult it is to maintain a safe and secure prison and how hard it is to be a correctional officer. NIJ must do all it can to research and develop technology that helps keep weapons and drugs out of our prisons.

In light of the tragedy on Sept. 11, have your goals and priorities changed? If so, how will they affect domestic programs for safety and security?

NIJ's statutory mandate is to sponsor research and development on crime and justice issues, including domestic counterterrorism. For the past several years, Congress provided NIJ with a dedicated funding stream for counter-terrorism research. I expect this dedicated funding to continue. In addition, all types of programs, including research programs, that address terrorism are a high priority. NIJ will strongly support this effort. In addition, NIJ will continue to ensure that it maintains a diversified research program that addresses more traditional crime and justice issues.

How has your background helped you in your current position?

Most of my professional career has focused on criminal justice policies and practices. Because of those experiences, I have developed a tremendous appreciation for the need for objective, reliable research to support improvements in our criminal justice system. I also understand that research needs to be available in a concise and well-presented manner, given the tremendous time constraints faced by people in the field.

What has been your involvement in PLRA? How is it helping correctional agencies decrease lawsuits?

Prior to my appointment as NIJ director, I provided substantial assistance to the judiciary committees of the House and Senate in drafting PLRA and the 1997 amendments to it. PLRA allows correctional managers greater control of the facilities by restricting the ability of the federal courts to enter injunctions and consent decrees, restricting attorney fees, and limiting the powers of special masters. At the same time, PLRA limits frivolous lawsuits filed by inmates by requiring inmates to pay filing fees (in installment payments) and to seek administrative remedies within the prison system before filing a lawsuit. In addition, PLRA has a "three-strikes" provision that kicks in for inmates who frequently file frivolous lawsuits.

The overall number of Federal lawsuits filed by inmates has declined substantially, even though the total number of inmates has increased dramatically since 1996, when Congress passed PLRA. From 1996 through 1999, the rate filings per inmate decreased nearly 50 percent. At the same time, many jurisdictions have terminated or substantially limited longstanding consent decrees.

How will the Corrections and Law Enforcement Family Support Program (CLEFS) help correctional officers prevent and deal with the stress they encounter every day? Why is it an important program?

NIJ's CLEFS has documented that stress is a significant issue for correctional officers and has identified some of the causes and nature of stress (see Addressing Correctional Officer Stress: Programs and Strategies at www.ncjrs.org/pdffiles1/nij/183474.pdf). NIJ is planning regional conferences to share more strategies and knowledge for dealing with stress, and these are slated to begin this year. NIJ also is launching a field test to assess the impact of efforts to prevent and reduce stress in three departments of correction and three law enforcement agencies. The field test will include family services, a wellness program, in-service training and supervisor training. In addition, NIJ is commissioning a study of the nature and extent of stress in community correctional officers. CLEFS is an important program because stress can have devastating effects on correctional officers and their families, undermine officers' performance and raise costs, such as increased leave and health care costs.

What assistance is NIJ offering to help correctional staff deal with the "new breed of juvenile offenders" -- the more violent juvenile offender?

NIJ is funding a number of research studies on juvenile offenders, including serious juvenile offenders. NIJ is studying the management of juveniles within adult correctional institutions and is supporting research concerning the mental health needs of juvenile offenders, as well as special needs for screening, assessing and classifying this population. Under its technology program, NIJ has several projects to improve correctional staff safety, including the development of body alarms that give the location of the person activating the alarm, biometric devices to track and monitor inmates inside facilities, devices to detect concealed weapons, and standards for stab-resistant body armor.

What more can be done to provide treatment for juveniles who have drug addictions?

NIJ currently is testing a systemic approach to treating drug-involved juvenile offenders through its Breaking the Cycle Program (BTC). BTC is a systemwide intervention designed to test the idea that early identification and assessment of drug-using defendants, followed by individualized and continuous treatment, supervision and judicial oversight, can reduce drug use and crime. The BTC model includes collaboration among justice and treatment system agencies, early intervention, individualized treatment and supervision plans, sanctions for those who do not comply and incentives for those who do, and judicial oversight. BTC is being implemented in four sites, one of which is a juvenile site -- Lane County in Eugene, Ore.

A number of jurisdictions throughout the nation have implemented juvenile drug courts, using funds from the Office of Justice Programs' (OJP) Drug Courts Program Office. The program combines judicial oversight with drug testing and drug treatment for juveniles assessed as addictive or at risk for addiction. NIJ has two evaluations under way, examining the program in Oregon and the juvenile drug court programs funded by OJP.

Collaboration between law enforcement agencies, the courts and correctional agencies has become increasingly important. What is NIJ doing to integrate these groups through a possible technological information network?

NIJ created the INFOTECH Program to build the tools and technologies required for affordable information-sharing among criminal justice agencies. Goals include: secure access to local, state and national criminal justice information; immediate access to pertinent information across multiple jurisdictions; critical information disseminated securely and rapidly to police on patrol; and reducing the amount of voice traffic over already crowded channels. Users stated that quick and complete information is critical to officer safety, victim protection, offender treatment and effective prosecution and administration of criminal justice. The Florida and California systems are using the technologies developed in the INFOTECH program. In addition, NIJ has three sites for a pilot program called COMPASS (Community, Mapping, Planning and Analysis for Safety Strategies), which builds a data-sharing network among several agencies.

What developments has NIJ made in noninvasive drug detection and noninvasive strip searches?

NIJ's Office of Science and Technology has several projects concerned with noninvasive drug detection and noninvasive searches, including:

* A project to identify, develop, demonstrate and assess drug detection and noninvasive drug screening technologies applicable to corrections. The ultimate objective is to develop a multipurpose portal device that will detect soft and hard contraband.

* An evaluation of contamination issues associated with the PharmchemTM Sweat Patch and an evaluation of saliva test kits. Results will be released this month.

* A project to identify and/or develop technology capable of detecting small amounts of drugs introduced into correctional facilities through mail, packages or other means.

* A stationary screening system to detect nonmetallic weapons and contraband in lower body cavities. The system will provide a noninvasive alternative to X-ray and physical body cavity searches.

* A Sept. 27, 2001, workshop, "Noninvasive Drug Detection Workshop for California Proposition 36," held in San Diego for leaders of local probation and treatment agencies, local judges, university researchers, alcohol and drug treatment staff, and quality assurance staff.

Can you explain NIJ's involvement with the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence?

NJJ sponsored the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence by bringing together a large group of experts that included police chiefs and superintendents, forensic laboratory directors, prosecutors, defense attorneys, the judiciary, ethicists, academicians and victim advocates. As a result of the commission's work, NIJ has published several important documents (see www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/dna/pubs.htm). The commission contributed significantly to the national dialogue over several important DNA issues and was cited by Congress in the DNA Analysis Backlog Elimination Act of 2000.

Some seem to believe law enforcement agencies receive more funding than correctional agencies. Do you agree? If so, what is NIJ doing to distribute these funds equally?

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), in 1997 (the latest data available), all levels of the U.S. government spent a total of $58 billion for police, $44 billion for corrections and $29 billion for judicial services. The vast majority of this funding is a result of numerous decisions made by state and local officials and legislatures. As a research agency within the Department of Justice, NIJ does not have a position on these aggregate numbers, which result from state and local government processes.

Statistics show that the crime rate has decreased, but that the correctional population has not. Possible explanations include longer sentences and the abolition of parole. Do you see a time when or a way that this could be brought to a balance?

The increase in sentence length and the decline in the use of parole were only two of many factors influencing the size of correctional populations in the United States. Among other things, new laws resulting from proposals such as Violent Offender Incarceration and Truth in Sentencing legislation also affected correctional populations. Also, states passed a variety of laws affecting correctional populations, such as the three-strikes legislation in California. However, the latest BJS reports on inmate populations suggest that the size of prison populations in the United States peaked in 2000 and may have begun to decline in 2001. It appears that the effects of longer sentences and reduced parole rates have diminished in state systems (although not in the federal system) and that a new balance is being reached. Additional population declines obviously will depend on whether states reverse sentencing or parole policies that were instituted during the past two decades and whether crime continues to decline.

What is NIJ doing to ensure that those in prison are offered effective programming that will enable them to examine and change their behavior?

In partnership with OJP's Corrections Programs Office, NIJ has been involved in the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment Program. NIJ has funded a national evaluation of the program and several site evaluations that examined the process of implementation and outcomes of the program. Providing programs in prisons is, however, a state function and determined by each state.

What is NIJ doing with their programs and research to help identify, classify and work with gangs?

NIJ recently has supported a number of research studies on gangs. For example, NIJ completed a national assessment of gangs in correctional facilities, the results of this study assisted correctional administrators with a system of policies and procedures to define and manage security threat groups such as gangs. This research demonstrated that correctional systems that develop and implement these formal policies and procedures are better able to manage and control these populations within prison systems.

Another line of NJJ research is community-based and involves comprehensive local initiatives to reduce gang violence in specific communities. For example, the Boston Ceasefire project has resulted in dramatic declines in youth homicides and violence (see www.ncjrs.org/pdffiles1/nij/188741.pdf). Other initiatives involve cities such as St. Louis and Los Angeles. NIJ soon will be publishing a collection of studies on gangs.

Is there anything else you would like to add to this discussion?

NIJ recently requested proposals for correctional research. The topics of interest, developed in collaboration with the Association of State Correctional Administrators, include, but are not limited to: management of violent offenders in correctional institutions and systems; management and treatment of special populations, such as sex offenders, mentally ill inmates, female inmates and juveniles in adult correctional systems; problems and issues in the effectiveness of substance abuse treatment programs and other treatment programs in influencing offenders' behavior or the role of treatment programs in the operation of correctional institutions; and recent trends in the sizes and compositions of correctional populations and their effects on the operation and management of correctional systems. The solicitation deadline was Jan. 16. More information can be found at: www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/funding.htm.

Elizbeth A. Klug is assistant editor of Corrections Today.
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Author:Klug, Elizabeth A.
Publication:Corrections Today
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2002
Words:2275
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