Interview with Phillip Stevenson, Ph.D.

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AZ_stevenson150x150Discover Criminal Justice sat down to speak with Phil Stevenson about his work turning statistics into policy in Arizona. In addition to being the director of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, Dr. Stevenson also serves as president of the Justice Research and Statistics Association. In this conversation Dr. Stevenson disscusses these roles, as well as his unorthodox education experience, and the way he has found success in turning data into action.

Can you speak a little about your education experience and your background?

I’m a nontraditional college student. I did not finish my undergrad until I was 30. I had moved out to Arizona to finish my undergrad, but I got a little distracted and it wasn’t until I was 30 that I ended up going back to pursue my undergrad in Sociology. I received my undergrad degree in Sociology from the University of Arizona, entered their PhD program, and completed my masters at University of Arizona.

I then moved to Chicago, in the middle of my graduate program, to get my first job in this field, which was an entry level research analyst at the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority; the state investigation agency for the state of Illinois for criminal justice purposes, which is a very similar agency and serves the same purposes as the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission does here in Arizona. That was my entry into the work of statistical analysis centers. Until then, I had never even heard of statistical analysis center.

So what exactly is a statistical analysis center?

Statistical analysis centers are really focused on data and how that data can be used to inform practice. We’re not collecting data to contribute to the theoretical literature, although certainly, we have interest and certainly have the ability to do that. Our function is really to collect data, share data, and use data to inform policy and practice.

That was my introduction to that work. It really answered for me the fundamental question that I struggled with in graduate school at the University of Arizona which was, “So what?” So what I do some really interesting work that informs theoretical perspective, self‑control, social control, cultural deviance, differential association. How does that affect practitioners? How does that work to help crime victims?

I struggled with that as an undergrad, and even as a graduate student but once I entered the work of statistical analysis centers, the light bulb went on. This is the type of work that does have a direct impact on the practice of criminal justice. That was my flow through my graduate education and into the practice.

I finished my PhD many, many years later, when I was working at the same time. That’s how I got in this very practical work of data and criminal justice.

Was there one specific moment when that feeling really clicked?

I was hired by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority to work on a National Institute of Justice study that was looking at the victim witness program in Cooke County, Illinois. That project required us to both quantitative and qualitative data collection. We actually visited courtrooms. We visited the program staff. We accompanied the program staff as they did their daily work.

I’ve had several light bulb moments, but this was the one where my first exposure to the feeling that what I do can make a difference because I witnessed the harm that comes with victimization.

I witnessed the system trying to meet that challenge of serving the victim’s needs while also, frankly, serving the criminal justice system’s needs. What that told me was that the research project that I was doing mattered. The work that I was doing may or may not appear in a peer review journal, but that’s not the point. The point is that my data, my research, was improving or informing efforts to improve the crime victims’ lives, and reduce the number of future victims.

When you began your career, was there a specialty within the statistical collection and analysis that you sought to pursue?

The answer to the question is no, there was not necessarily a sub field of criminology that led me towards a more applied track. Certainly, even though I was attending a very well respected Department of Sociology, my mentor, Travis Hershey, never forgot to make that connection for me between both the theoretical work that I was doing and the empirical work that I was doing, and how it impacted practice.

I was a bit of a black sheep in that department for that reason. My immediate goal was not to go into a research university and be an academic. I wanted to do some work that impacted the field and that was not the emphasis of my program. In part, was why I didn’t finish at University of Arizona. I finished at Loyola University which had more of a practical track.

It’s not just quantitative data but quantitative data in conjunction with qualitative data that will allow having a more comprehensive perspective of the issue. I ended up being trained in both quantitative and qualitative data collection strategy.

What are the differences in data collection between quantitative and qualitative data?

Generally speaking, quantitative data is about numbers, qualitative data is about words. This methodological pluralism allows you to tap into the strengths of both. Potentially the weaknesses of a quantitative data collection can be overcome if you can include a qualitative component.

For example, one of the primary ways in which we collect data is through surveys. Those are surveys whose responses get coded into numbers, generally speaking. Then we do our magic with those numbers to answer questions. One of the things that quantitative data allows you to do is collect large amounts of data on either a large number of cases, whether those cases are individuals, whether those cases are organizations. Quantitative data can capture a lot of information on a lot of different things.

The qualitative data is much more the story telling component and the deeper understanding of an issue. For example, my dissertation was on the experience of felony crime victims with the criminal justice system in Cooke County. We collected survey data that was very generally about how many times did you see a victim assistance professional? Did you apply for victim compensation? Lots of questions were then turned into quantitative data.

We got some qualitative data from the crime victims that really told us more about their experiences, both as crime victims and as customers, if you will, of the criminal justice system. What that qualitative data really does, it allows us to speak more deeply about their experiences.

How does that data then get turned into policy?

I think that’s where statistical analysis centers that are housed in state administering agencies have an advantage to some degree. The advantage is that state administering agencies are guided by either an advisory board or in our case, what we call a commission. I worked at a commission here in Arizona, the members of which are the criminal justice leaders in our state such as the director of the state’s department of corrections and the director of the state police agency.

The work that I publish out of this agency is directly connected or is exposed to those criminal justice leaders in our state. And so that gives me access to those folks who really do affect policy and practice.

I see my role, or the role of statistical analysis centers, is really just to bring that data to bear on the issues. For example, one of the initiatives that I’m most proud of here in Arizona is we’ve developed a multi‑systemic strategy to address prescription drug abuse, misuse and abuse. We use data to make the case that it is a problem. We use data to identify our pilot sites, i.e. where the need is great and the infrastructure is strong.

Our role is to bring that data to the practitioners and the policymakers and hopefully those practitioners and policymakers use that data as their information base upon which they would make those important policy or practical recommendations or enhancements.

Would you be able to talk a little bit about your role in your position as director of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission and what your responsibilities are?

What I try to do here in Arizona is be ‑ and this is kind of an oversimplification ‑ a one‑stop-shop for data and statistics on crime, victimization, and the criminal justice system.

We do some original data collection out of my statistical analysis center, but for the most part we rely on data from our partner agencies ‑ from the Department of Corrections, from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, from our Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees courts, the judiciary, probation. We try to bring all that data together so that folks who are looking for data only have to make one call, and they make the one call to the statistical analysis center. Or one of the things that we developed here in Arizona was a web based tool that allows users to access some of that data.

And so what we’re really trying to do is collect the data that allows it to be used in a policy‑ or practice relevant way. Now, I also have statutory responsibility for annual reports on crime trends, sexual assaults in Arizona, and on the functioning of some grant funds. But we also are required to do a survey or some data collection around substance abuse and gang behavior among youth. So that led to our one big data collection effort that happens every two years, which is the Arizona Youth Survey.

How has the data collected from the Arizona Youth Survey helped shape policy in Arizona?

Well, I will preface it a little bit by saying that this is not just a criminal justice system issue, and in fact many would argue it’s not even primarily a criminal justice issue. The way we talk about it here is that it’s a public health problem with a criminal justice nexus.

The data that we collected from the Arizona Youth Survey, from 2006 through 2010, showed a really dramatic increase in youth self‑reporting misuse of prescription drugs. This data helped us make the case that this was a significant problem facing the state of Arizona.

Yet, it wasn’t just a problem of youth. It was a problem in the adult population as well. And we pulled in other data from, for example, the Arizona Department of Health Services, that collects data on hospital admissions and emergency department admissions to see why people were in the hospital or emergency room and the reasons that they were ultimately released.

That combination of data allowed us to make the case that there needed to be a focused, comprehensive strategy to address prescription drug abuse.

The cost to the system of prescription drug misuse and abuse is large. So we used those numbers to create a sense of urgency around the issue. The Arizona Board of Pharmacy helped us and the governor’s office to come together and start doing the planning around addressing the problem.

We then convened an expert panel of data folks, preventionists, treatment folks, the medical community, to help us design a strategy. We developed a multi‑systemic strategy for addressing prescription drug misuse and abuse that involved the medical community, which focused on prevention. The effort also included the law enforcement community.

We have seen dramatic impacts of that effort and actually have collected quite a bit of data. And this is a project that’s only been running for about 18 months here.

We implemented this initiative in three pilot sites. These pilot sites together are averaging about 200 pounds of prescription drug meds being returned to their drop boxes. One of our strategies was that we wanted prescription drop boxes in these counties so the medication didn’t have to sit around for the next big take‑back event. Take back events are very popular. They are a great way to collect unused medications that are rife for abuse. But they happen too infrequently.

In addition to getting drugs off the streets and out of our homes by doing take‑back events, we are promoting and sharing best practices for prescribers and pharmacists around dispensing controlled substances. We’re really using hard data during the initiative to help change behavior.

In four days, we’re going to receive an award from the National Criminal Justice Association for this initiative because of its comprehensiveness, its innovativeness, and its effectiveness. There is now a conversation about how do we do this for the entire state

Have there been any unintended consequences of a program such as this?

That’s exactly one of the things that we talked about in terms of our prescription drug initiative because we are sensitive to the unintended consequences. One example, as we address our prescription drug problem we are aware that many of those folks that were using prescription drugs will shift to heroin.

Certainly as we lock down the supply of prescription drugs, that drives the price up, making heroin much cheaper relatively. It’s a supply and demand market strategy or understanding of how the market works.

As the price goes up, maybe this pushes maybe more people to heroin. Are we shifting some of our problems of prescription drugs to heroin? To address this question we look at the data of admissions to hospitals, admissions to emergency departments, and data on self-reported use of heroin, and other data sources that we can access.

You are also president of the Justice Research and Statistics Association. How does that differ from your work with the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission?

Very specifically, the Justice, Research, and Statistical Association is responsible for training and technical assistance for statistical analysis centers around the country. The association is really the membership organization for the statistical analysis center. There is that direct connection between statistical analysis centers and JRSA. As president of JRSA, my job is to help the association meet the needs of all statistical analysis centers around the country.

Now certainly, there are very specific things we do every year; we honor some of the best publications on statistical analysis centers, we have an award for technical innovations, and some of our statistical analysis centers get involved in designing analytical tools.

Before we wrap up, is there any final advice or words of wisdom to impart on anybody who might be reading this interview?

A final, though maybe biased, word of wisdom. What I would encourage all students to do, whether they like math or not, is to become skilled in data and statistics – that is, data collection and the interpretation of data. I honestly believe that it is through the use and application of data and tapping into what we know and will continue to learn about those who come to the attention of the criminal justice system that will be used to improve our criminal justice system. Even if those reading are currently enrolled in a certain program, at least become conversant in data and research.

And finally, I have to say, do what you love and good things will happen. That’s what I did and I really love this work. It is interesting. It is different every day. I think it’s really important to do what you love and what you’re interested in. Success will follow no matter how you define that. I define it as the ability to make the world a better place.

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