Greg Ridgeway

Acting director, National Institute of Justice (research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice)

Washington, D.C.

You became acting director in January. What specific problems are you focused on addressing through the National Institute of Justice?

Forensic science is going through a revolution, with opportunities as well as a lot of challenges. Many forensic labs have big backlogs—the most problematic, or the most disturbing, are the sexual assault kits. Los Angeles had a backlog of about 10,000 sexual assault kits [that have never been analyzed]. We put scientists there to observe and document the outcomes of those cases. We're doing the same in Houston and Detroit to try to understand what goes on in a police department or a crime lab system that generates these backlogs.

We can try to increase the capacity of labs—hire more people, train more crime analysts and forensic examiners—but these tests are expensive and labor-intensive. If we want to solve this problem, we need to continue to fund the kinds of basic science that will ultimately lead to a scientific and technological solution.

What current projects do you find important or interesting?

To date, the U.S. criminal justice system has depended on increasing penalties—particularly making the sentences longer—but many states are finding this to be an expensive option they cannot sustain.

There are new models that try to focus on the swiftness and the certainty of a penalty, which generate deterrence. A prime example is HOPE Probation out of Hawaii, which targets substance abuse. On a weekly basis, if not more frequently, the offender will show up for a drug test. If the person fails, he or she is escorted immediately to jail for a short stay—perhaps two days. We are trying out HOPE in new sites to evaluate it and see what happens. If successful, the project could revolutionize how we approach deterrence in the criminal justice system.

What are the greatest challenges facing criminal justice in the U.S. today?

We've gone through a 20-year decline in crime—although last year there was a small uptick in violent crime. The puzzling thing as scientists is that we don't know why this is happening. We don't have the indicators to know if last year was an anomaly or a signal of a new 20-year trend. We have funded the National Academies to explore the various theories. It will probably take about two more years to sift through the literature and assemble workshops and panels, but we hope that by 2015 we'll have a better understanding of crime trends.