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USF receives multimillion-dollar grant to fund criminal justice, policing research

The Center for Justice Research and Policy aims to research, evaluate and improve aspects of the criminal justice system and law enforcement practices in the Tampa Bay area. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/USF

Another avenue of research has opened up for USF students looking to get involved in existing and future research projects on criminal justice issues as well as participate in collaborative, firsthand experiences with students across colleges.

The Center for Justice Research and Policy (CJRP), set in motion Jan. 28, was created by its co-directors Bryanna Fox, associate professor in the Department of Criminology, and Edelyn Verona, professor in the Department of Psychology. It aims to improve the criminal justice system and promote efficient, effective and fair policing in the Tampa Bay community through research and evaluation of criminal justice as well as law enforcement practices.

Funding for the center came from a five-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), a government agency focused on conducting research about criminal justice in America. Outside partners, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lightning, Rays and Rowdies, have also donated $25,000 each in support of the center’s future projects.

Both Fox and Verona were working in similar research fields at different labs — the Social and Psychological Research for Understanding Crime Etiology (SPRUCE) Lab and the Disinhibition and Affect Regulation Clinical (DARC) Lab, respectively — when they realized their efforts could be combined to more effectively help the community.

“We said, ‘Let’s work together,’” Fox said. “And [we said] ‘We’re going to join forces and try to take all of [Verona’s] incredible psychological knowledge and developmental knowledge, and combine it with my previous work’ … And then we realized, ‘Wow, we can really have a force multiplier, if we bring more people in,’ because we realized there’s so many other pieces of the puzzle that were missing.”

The CRJP combines multiple disciplines in its research, allowing both undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of majors such as public health, criminology and psychology to work on research in the same labs. Fox said an interdisciplinary approach is more effective when trying to come up with ideas on how to improve the justice system.

“We know that the causes of why people commit crimes or how we deal with reducing crime and preventing criminal behavior is multi-systemic,” she said. “There’s not just one thing. It’s not like if we only educate people [it] will reduce crime, or if we do hotspots policing [it] will reduce crime. We’ve done each of these things individually, and no one thing is a silver bullet.

“We need all of these — public health, sociology, education and criminology — all coming together. Because there’s not one singular thing that’s going to fix all the problems.”

As of now, there is no official application to do research at the center. Students from any major and year can contact the co-directors if they are interested in participating.

Those who are involved in the CJRP will be able to see the impact of their work, which according to Khary Rigg, associate professor in the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy and part of the leadership team at CRJP, is an important part of their learning experience.

“One of the great things about community-based research is that students actually get to see how the research makes an impact,” he said. “Students really get a chance to see the actual impact that research can have on real life … I think this really benefits students quite a bit because you’re not detached from the impact that you’re having.”

With a pandemic still ongoing and no designated office space for the center as of yet, students and staff will be completing much of their research virtually as well as using the SPRUCE and DARC labs when needed.

An important goal Verona seeks to achieve with the center is for students to collaborate with professionals from other departments while working on criminal justice and policy projects. She said taking a broader perspective by working with various disciplines can help students solve problems in their work.

“One of the things that I think hinders our ability to solve real problems is that we just use the tools that were taught in our field,” she said. “An interdisciplinary space provides students with multiple skills and multiple perspectives on how they can then apply [these tools] to problems that they’ll tackle in their own work.”

The connections students will make while in the program could lead to offers to participate in other research experiences down the road, Verona said.

“It also gives [students] many more opportunities for research and internships because we have a wealth of community connections across all the folks that are in the center,” she said. “And an interdisciplinary perspective really builds your critical thinking skills, because some of these disciplines actually disagree on some ways of approaching a problem. So it helps students try to reconcile these different perspectives.”

The research performed by students in the center is community based, which allows them to see how issues they study all day, such as the justice system and policing tactics, are lived experiences for many people in the Tampa Bay area, according to Rigg.

“It’s like real research, … research that matters,” he said. “A lot of research is done in a lab, where it’s not a very naturalistic setting, but by students getting involved with the center, they’ll have opportunities to engage with people who are incarcerated, people who are on parole or on probation [and] people who are in the court system. They’ll get a chance to observe courts happening.”

There are already over 25 students involved in two major research projects brought to the center by the co-directors. The first project, funded by the NIJ, examines and evaluates re-entry programs at the Pasco County Jail.

Students were able to visit jails around the county and assess what inmates need in order to reduce the likelihood they’ll offend again, using one-on-one interviews as well as collecting information about their personalities and mental and physical health.

Due to the pandemic, the interviews were halted and students had to work from home.

“Of course, we stopped for a while during COVID, but we’re coming back in slowly,” Verona said. “But we have to be very careful because of COVID precautions, jails are high risk because folks are housed together.”

With the data collected, those involved in this research project have developed services like therapies and training to address the needs of inmates and reduce the risk of recidivism, which refers to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior. Graduate students have been essential to testing out the services, according to Fox.

“Graduate students are actually implementing the therapy, some of these trainings and actually serving as paraprofessionals who are helping to track people after they get released from jail,” Fox said.

“They talk to [former prisoners], see how they’re doing, see what their health and needs outcomes are and see if we’re having a meaningful impact and [improving] on them. We need the students who are doing all this great research and work to help us to be able to understand what impact our work is having.”

The second project, led by Fox, focused on implementing police reforms inside the Tampa police department. Before the center was inaugurated and with the help of students, Fox interviewed residents to learn about their interactions with police.

Based on her research, Fox recommended 17 key findings to Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s Community Task Force on Policing to tackle issues such as racial disparities in the treatment of citizens and enhance interactions between the community and the Tampa police department. The students will then start evaluating the effectiveness of each finding, according to Fox.

“One of the things that we’re doing is ride along, so we want to watch the police officers and see how they’re engaging with citizens,” she said. “We interviewed [citizens] in the summer before any of the reforms are implemented, and we’re going to interview them again once they’re implemented, and we want to see if people are noticing changes because of these reforms and programs that we’re implementing.”

With the launch of CJRP and the subsequent increase in collaboration among researchers and local agencies, Fox said she hopes students will be attracted to the hands-on opportunities the center has to offer.

“The other nice thing is it’s a benefit for our USF students and aspiring students. We think that we’ll be able to track some of the best students,” she said.

“There’s no other center like this in the state for sure.”