December 7, 2018  | 

Translational Criminology: Building Bridges Between Research and Practice


By Susan Broderick

When I arrived on the campus of Georgetown University ten years ago, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

Here I was on the grounds of one of the most prestigious universities in the world, as a member of the faculty no less. Yet, I was not an “academic” by any stretch of the imagination. Having spent much of my professional life as a prosecutor in Manhattan during the crime wave of the 90’s, the only evidence base I was familiar with involved DNA hits and videotaped confessions.

The truth is that from the moment I arrived at Georgetown, I was excited yes, but I also felt intimidated. I was overwhelmed with all of the research terminology and found it hard to relate to or understand all of the technical science. I also realized that my real world perspective, was not something that was appreciated (and it was sometimes outright dismissed) by those who valued dissertations and PhD’s.

I felt uncomfortable, yet knew that there had to be a reason I was there. I had something they didn’t – real world experience. With all the focus on scientific rigor, none had actually ever handled a case or stepped onto a crime scene. The perspective that comes from firsthand experience seemed to be sorely lacking in the world of academia.

The first two years at Georgetown were uncomfortable and overwhelming, but things began to change beginning in the end of 2010. That was when I came across the work of several brilliant researchers who had in fact studied what I had lived and experienced.

Their work and research resonated with me on such a deep level that I knew I had to leave the ivory towers of the university, and bring it to my colleagues on the front lines. I soon realized that that in my role, I could serve as bridge between these two worlds.

Looking back, it all started at the 2010 JMATE conference where I attended a session by Dr. John Kelly, founder of the Recovery Research Institute. He spoke about the criminal justice system being able to provide the motivational fulcrum that initiates sobriety for many in the justice system. From my years as a prosecutor, I had seen first-hand that this was true and was immediately drawn to his work.

Since that time, I have had the opportunity to work with Dr. Kelly and share my own personal story of recovery with him. I mentioned the fact that I was able to achieve long-term recovery without treatment and/or a single relapse, and explained to him my belief that this had been the work of a miracle.


To which he replied, “And you had high recovery capital,”


I had never heard of this concept, yet it seems to be one of the key concepts in this emerging field of recovery-oriented systems of care (ROSC). From scholars such as William White, I have since learned that recovery capital is the compilation of internal and external assets that can help to both initiate and sustain sobriety.

The concept of recovery capital also has important implications across the justice system, since it has the potential to reduce recidivism and turn lives around in a positive way. The work of Dr. David Best has provided scientific support for the parallels between desistance from offending and recovery from addiction. A great deal of his work centers on measuring, increasing and sustaining recovery capital for people with substance use disorders as well as their families.

From Kelly to White to Best, these recovery researchers have truly transformed the way that I look at science. Instead of fear and trepidation, I read their often technical research papers and studies with excitement. In fact, their research findings show that there is real reason for hope and optimism.

Despite all the negativity around addiction and overdoses, we know more about recovery than we ever have. We know that while there is no cure for addiction, the prognosis for this disorder is actually quite good, and the majority of people with substance use disorders who seek help can and do recover.

My work with each of these researchers has truly transformed my career. While I still may not understand every study or the science behind it, I do have the utmost appreciation for their work and the important role it plays in the justice system. And I have found that they appreciate the opportunity to have honest and open conversations about their findings and how it can be explained to and utilized by those in the “real world”.

I am slowly but surely getting more comfortable with the technical terminology, and I am working on ways to translate these findings to the real world. The research on recovery has not received the attention that it deserves, especially within the justice arena, and I plan to do something about it.

Most recently I had the good fortune to meet Dr. John Laub, the former Director of the National Institute of Justice and one of the leading criminologists in the nation.

He introduced me to the concept of “Translational Criminology” which focuses on breaking down barriers between researchers and practitioners by creating opportunities for them to interface.

This approach recognizes that successful collaboration requires both sides to exchange ideas in a respectful manner and to work together as equal partners. Given the current momentum around justice reform and the impact that the justice system can have on aiding treatment retention and improving rates of recovery, the concept of “Translational Criminology” couldn’t come at a better time. It is certainly a win-win for both researchers and practitioners, but perhaps most importantly, for the millions whose lives can be saved by the latest findings.



Susan Broderick, J.D., is the Founder and CEO of Building Bridges to Recovery, Former Associate Research Professor at Georgetown University, and former Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, N.Y., from 1989 to 2003.

Editorial Contributions by: Recovery Research Institute Staff