BetaGov Interviews

BetaGov spotlight: Denise O'Donnell

Date:   August 9, 2017

What are the most exciting initiatives that you supported during your time at BJA?

I was fortunate to work on a number of exciting and challenging issues as Director of BJA. A central focus of our work was to provide strong policy guidance to the field on adopting evidence-based practices. That mission yielded BJA's “Smart Suite.” It started with BJA's Smart Policing Initiative, and has expanded to nine other program areas, including prosecution, defense, corrections, and reentry.

All of these programs involve practitioners working with research partners to implement new approaches, develop evidence on whether they are effective, and use data in the process. What's been really interesting is that many of these disciplines, such as prosecution, indigent defense, and reentry, have not partnered with researchers before. The development of the Smart Suite has helped advance research and data in BJA's grant-funded programs in these areas.

In order to strengthen these research-practitioner partnerships, BJA developed a Smart Suite Academy, which has been held twice a year, helping leading researchers and justice practitioners strengthen their ability to work together. This provides a unique opportunity for experts from the different program areas to learn from each other, and to question and challenge their different models and approaches.

It's been encouraging to see the tremendous interest by criminal justice practitioners in using evidence-based programs. That's a great start in transforming the criminal justice system—people who want to do better and are not wedded to what has been done in the past.

Another major initiative I supported was the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a partnership between DOJ and the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. During my time at BJA, JRI worked in more than 25 states to reduce reliance on incarceration and make upfront investments or reinvest cost savings in alternative criminal justice approaches such as community corrections, drug and problem-solving courts, alternatives to incarceration, and pretrial reform.

What is the most pressing concern in criminal justice?

The opioid crisis is the most worrisome to me personally; it is growing so rapidly and taking so many lives. The rates of addiction and overdose are alarming. It is a much larger issue than criminal justice alone; it is a public health crisis. Addressing it requires cross-disciplinary work from the government, nonprofits, and health communities, but we need to better understand addiction and match available treatment to the level of addiction. I am very concerned that the recent focus on increasing penalties and enforcement will divert critical resources for prevention and treatment and take us in the wrong direction. I am excited that Litmus is working with practitioners on developing and testing promising multidisciplinary approaches to addiction, including the opioid crisis.

Why did you want to join the BetaGov team after leaving BJA? And what are you most excited about working on?

I left BJA because I was a presidential appointee so my term ended after President Obama left office. I was excited to join Litmus and work with Angela Hawken and its innovative staff on BetaGov and Litmus Labs, which focuses on improving corrections, community corrections, policing, and prosecution (and the list is growing!). First, Litmus is very practitioner-focused. There is a growing commitment to criminal justice reform in states and localities, so it is an exciting time to do this work with practitioners who are committed to partnering with us. Second, Litmus/BetaGov recognizes that the people who are impacted by our programs—who are incarcerated, or are in treatment for substance use disorders or mental illness—have learned experience and good ideas on how to improve our programs and strategies. Traditionally, policy ideas in criminal justice come from practitioners and researchers who are often removed from working in the programs; we rarely use ideas from people who are impacted. This rich source of information has been ignored for way too long.

My experience at BJA was that traditional research studies often take too long to be useful for practitioners. It is also very difficult to measure the effectiveness of programs to be useful to practitioners and get better outcomes. It's also expensive! One of the most important aspects of BetaGov is that it enables practitioners to test their own ideas and learn whether they work, so as to make quick transitions in their programs.

How do you see BetaGov having an impact on criminal justice?

There is a growing excitement in the field to test ideas using the BetaGov model. We are growing by leaps and bounds. I am currently working to expand BetaGov to reentry, bringing in the voices of formerly incarcerated people and their families. Other colleagues at BetaGov are expanding into education and health, where the possibilities are endless.