Incorporating participatory methods can make research more meaningful to the people it seeks to serve. It can also enrich research by generating new questions, suggesting further analyses, uncovering important lessons and considerations, and clearly and accessibly disseminating the findings to researchers, policymakers, practitioners, and the individuals and communities most directly affected by the research.

With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Policies for Action program, New Jersey Criminal Justice Reform Advancing Racial Equity (NJ CARE) study assesses the impact of the state’s 2017 pretrial reforms on racial equity. The reforms in New Jersey eliminated cash bail, introduced the use of a risk assessment tool, created options for pretrial monitoring, and implemented speedy trial laws. The study assesses impacts on disparities among different racial groups at key decision points in the pretrial process. Through interviews, it also aims to understand how people who’ve had a criminal court case in New Jersey or who work in New Jersey’s criminal justice system characterize racial equity within the pretrial process and what changes they believe are needed to make it more equitable. The project uses participatory methods to illuminate and center people’s experiences in the criminal justice system, especially as they relate to effects on their physical and mental health and well-being.

How are we incorporating participatory methods and practices into our research?

NJ CARE uses participatory practices in two main ways. The project team formed a Lived Experience Advisory Group (LEAG), made up of 10 people who either work in the pretrial system or have been directly affected by it. The LEAG participates in many portions of the research process, including refining research questions, interpreting findings, and developing interview protocols. The research team collaborated with a local community organization, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, to recruit members based on an eligibility screening designed to foster safety (for instance, excluding people whose open cases could be compromised by participating). Careful consideration was given to the group’s composition, particularly how power dynamics might play out between system actors and people who have gone through the criminal justice system. The LEAG began holding 90-minute virtual meetings in spring 2022, with approximately nine meetings planned over a two-year period.

The study also uses PhotoVoice, a participatory research method that employs photography as a method of data collection. Participants in the pretrial system after the reforms went into effect will take photos in response to prompts on racial equity, health and well-being, and their experiences with the criminal justice system, and participants and the research team will collaboratively analyze the submitted photos. The findings will be presented in an online gallery.

What have we learned so far about incorporating participatory methods and practices?

When incorporating participatory methods into research, it’s important to adhere to several principles: foster a safe environment for participants, set accessible expectations, and respect their agency in making decisions and sharing in ways that are best for them. Working with the LEAG generated some valuable ideas on how researchers can uphold these principles:

  • Transparency: Set clear expectations throughout the project so LEAG members have enough structure and guidance to fully participate during meetings. Be direct about the elements of the research project that aren’t subject to change and those that can be shaped by members’ input.
  • Time management: Expect that engagement by participants may change over time; respect LEAG members’ time, design meeting agendas in which everyone has an opportunity to share.
  • Humility: Recognize the limits of research and respect experiential knowledge as its equal, be open to feedback, and partner with a community organization that has knowledge of local context and connections.
  • Agility: Be prepared to pivot based on insights and feedback from participants.
  • Oneness: Treat the LEAG as part of the larger research team, and not separate from it, while acknowledging that researchers do have power relative to participants when it comes to the research process. Researchers also bring their own social identities and positionality to the group, along with any of their own lived experiences in the systems they study. Recognizing this can help researchers leverage their power to create an inclusive environment.

As the research community works to address racial equity, it’s important to center the voices of those most impacted by the policies we aim to change. Incorporating participatory methods and engaging the community at every step in the research process and in policy development must become standard practice for all.

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