Policy and Science at the Department of Justice

“I never knew the Department of Justice [DOJ] had a science agency,” Iris Wagstaff, 2015-16 Executive Branch Fellow, recalls thinking after learning about it at “finalist interview week” for the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF). It’s a common refrain from fellows at DOJ. 

“I thought it was amazing that this small agency was supporting all this research,” said Wagstaff, who until recently was a fellow at the DOJ’s research arm called the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). NIJ has social scientists working alongside physical scientists to work on a wide range of criminal justice issues, including understanding the causes of crime, crime prevention, forensic sciences, law enforcement practices and adjudication. The scope of its work is apparent through the wide range of projects to which STPF fellows contribute. 

Wagstaff, a chemist with a Ph.D. in STEM education research and an affinity for increasing diversity and inclusion in STEM, led an agency-wide effort to broaden NIJ’s pool of peer reviewers, STEM graduate fellows, and R&D grant applicants. She also facilitated discussions about the science of diversity, and the importance of engaging the expertise of all segments of the population. She ended her fellowship in March to become the STEM program director in the Education and Human Resources division at AAAS, where she will continue to promote diversity in STEM fields.

Carlos Faraco, neuroscientist and 2016-17 Judicial Fellow at NIJ, helps maximize the impact of research funding administered through NIJ’s Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences (OIFS). While OIFS is a small office, their grant solicitations seek to address a broad range of forensic needs, he said. They range from their largest program – reducing the backlog of DNA evidence waiting to be tested in crime labs across the country, to forensic science R&D. While the program to reduce the DNA testing backlog has been a success, “it is less clear what the return on investment is for other program areas,” Faraco said.

Marina Mendoza, 2015-16 Executive Branch Fellow sponsored by the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), spent her first year at NIJ tackling teen dating violence, and continues to help coordinate an interagency workgroup focused on that issue with current fellow Yunsoo Park, also sponsored by SRCD. The agency has a good understanding of some risk factors for teen dating violence, such as family background, she said, and it is now studying the relationship between teen partners to see what additional risk factors can be found. 

Mendoza is also looking into what research is needed to determine developmentally appropriate methods for dealing with young adults ages 18 to about 25 who are in the criminal justice system. While young adults are currently treated the same as older adults, she said, we now know from developmental science research that human brains are still developing until our 20s. “How do we adjust? What do we do with these young adults who aren’t juveniles but aren’t quite adults?” Mendoza said. 

Neuroscientist Cara Altimus, 2015-16 Executive Branch Fellow, focused on impacts of stress on people in all areas of the criminal justice system. She contributed to the first NIJ Safety, Health and Wellness Plan that went beyond focusing on police officers to looking at everyone affected by the criminal justice system. 

“As a scientist I was able to point out that, to me, it’s meaningless where a person is – he or she is still affected by stress,” Altimus said. “Social science shows that the mental health of the officer population in a prison system affects the mental health of the prison population, and vice versa.” 

Fellows have a wide range of experiences at the Department of Justice. Learn more about judicial fellowships here.