The pragmatist

Q&A/The Director of Penn’s Master of Science Program in Criminology talks about working with former Attorney General Janet Reno and what drew her to criminology in the first place.

“It was hard and stressful in many ways, but it was kind of a golden time.”

Laurie Robinson

Photo credit: Candace di Carlo

Her experience as a self-described “Washington policy person”—and a stint serving under Janet Reno at the Justice Department—has given Laurie Robinson a unique perspective on law enforcement.

Laurie Robinson calls herself a “Washington policy person”—a non-lawyer who’s worked for the American Bar Association and as U.S. Assistant Attorney General under Janet Reno. Today, she works as a non-academic in an academic setting—she’s the director of Penn’s Master of Science Program in Criminology, director of the Forum on Crime and Justice, which sponsors educational programs on criminal justice topics for Washington policymakers, and a senior scholar at the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology.

“My father was a Washington Capitol Hill lobbyist,” says the D.C. native. “I grew up at the dinner table talking about politics and appropriations bills. That’s been in my blood.”

During her tenure with the DOJ Robinson led the Office of Justice Programs and focused resources on community-based policing, corrections and preventing violence against women. To honor her former boss and Penn criminology masters students, Robinson and her husband recently established the Janet Reno Fellowship Fund.

These days, she shuttles back and forth between Philadelphia and D.C. to teach and advise the 27 students enrolled in the M.S. program. “The students have been just wonderful. They’re the reason I get on the train every week.”

Q. What drew you to Penn to direct the Master of Science program?

A. What was really intriguing ties into the Janet Reno Fellowship—it was not about training students and preparing students to enter academic careers. It was about preparing students to become knowledgeable and skilled practitioners for careers in policing, correction, probation, parole, prosecution and public defense who would understand research, data and statistics and how to find out what’s been tried other places to really master crime mapping and other kinds of tools, and muster limited resources to actually have an impact on crime. How we could really be helping students go out in the world and become change agents, to go into organizations and help bring those tools into practice and help students go into policy settings, whether it would be on Capitol Hill working on a committee to help develop legislative proposals, or working for a mayor or a governor and helping him or her with policy proposals for legislature, or speechwriting, [working for] a think tank or even for a magazine or newspaper.

Q. What was it like working under Janet Reno?

A. I’ve had, in many ways, the best job in the Justice Department that one could have in my field, heading the Office of Justice Programs under Janet Reno. And being there at a time when the crime bill had passed, we had a multibillion-dollar budget, the opportunity to work with states and localities on innovation and criminal justice, the largest research budget in crime related research in the nation’s history. I had great colleagues in the Justice Department and support on the Hill among Republican as well as Democratic members.

It was hard and stressful in many ways, but it was kind of a golden time. I always say, I’m not at a point where I’m wanting to build empires. I had my empire!

Q. Tell me about some of your research there.

A. When I was in the Justice Department, Congress directed the Attorney General to provide a comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness of all of the grants that we spent—3 billion dollars, at that time—in preventing and controlling crime. We really took it seriously. [Jerry Lee Center of Criminology Director] Larry Sherman and his colleagues at the University of Maryland … produced this report called “Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising,” which has really become the bible in the field. It was the first document that looked at the rigor of the methodology in evaluations.

He and his colleagues went though all of the programs that we funded and divided them up in the settings they occurred—whether they were criminal justice programs like prisons or boot camps, or drug testament programs in prisons, a school-based program like D.A.R.E. or housing programs, like a gun buy-back program. They looked at the research and evaluations that had been done and gave them scores for how rigorous they were and then they had comments on them all. It garnered a huge amount of publicity, and one of the programs that the Congress had been pouring money into was the D.A.R.E. program. We had a lot of concerns about it, but it had huge political support. We joined forces with our Republican appropriators and put enormous pressure to get them to regroup and refocus on middle schools kids, where the problems are really beginning.

Q. What were some other findings?

A. It was nice to see that there was support for something called the Weed and Seed program, which is a comprehensive community-based program we had been funding. The notion is a neighborhood community-based program of weeding out crime and then seeding different kinds of prevention and housing and other kinds of redemption types of things. The Sherman research … showed that it is promising to do that kind of thing. It was the lack of impact of some of the criminal justice interventions and corrections and policing that was kind of disappointing. Generally, we tend to follow the research pretty closely, so we weren’t really surprised. For policymakers on Capitol Hill or mayor and county officials, some of it was very surprising.

Q. What do you teach?

A. The seminar I teach is “Criminology in Practice.” I bring in a whole series of people, a lot of them from Washington to speak to the students.

Q. Why do you think other Ivy League Universities don’t have criminology programs?

A. My sense is that criminology has traditionally been folded into sociology or treated under the study of criminal law in the law school. As a discipline, it doesn’t have the breadth of sociology and nobody would ever assert that it would. I’ll tell you one reason for this—there are 40-some universities in the United States that offer a Ph.D. in criminology. There are hundreds of programs that offer some kind of masters program in criminal justice, but many of those are programs where a lot of courses are going to be how to deal with your police union or courses in policing administration. There is no program in the United States that is a rigorous academic program that is very research-based, but aimed at that population who doesn’t want to go into the academic end as a career. And that’s what’s different about this program. If somebody wants to do that and go to a very top-notch school but go into the practice and policy side, Penn is really the place that they should end up.

Q. Where do the students end up?

A. We had 13 Master of Science graduates last May. Two were mid-career, so they went back to their existing jobs, one went on for further schooling, one is in the midst of interviewing with the F.B.I. All of the others are in criminal justice jobs now. That’s pretty good for the first year! One of the students I had last year was interested in going into state law enforcement and she made applications, but had to wait. In the interim, she went and did a volunteer unpaid internship with [the Providence, R.I., police department] over the summer. She has been hired as the director of the Providence Weed and Seed program, which is great. I’m so proud of her.

Originally published on April 27, 2006