Stefanie Lopez-Howard

MPA 2010

Graduate Certificate in Survey Research, 2010

Statistical Analysis Center Director, Criminal Justice Coordinating Council

When Stefanie graduated with a BA in English Literature from Trinity College in 2005, she desperately wanted to live in New York City. She also thought her future career would send her to a courtroom, so she moved to New York City and started working as a Legal Assistant at Legal Momentum, an organization that litigates on women’s rights issues, and does policy-related work. The more she learned about the policy-making process via both litigation and legislative deliberation, the less she thought that a law degree was the route for her. Later, she started looking at public policy and administration as the way to make a measured, broad-based, and considered impact on the issues she cared about. In 2008, her now-husband was heading back to medical school in Connecticut after spending a year with her in NYC doing medical research. The time was right for her to move on from the organization that launched her career and go back for her graduate degree.

After exploring the available programs in Connecticut, Stefanie determined that UConn’s MPA was the perfect fit for her – particularly because of the quantitative focus the program offered. “One thing I had learned at Legal Momentum, from reading mountains of journals about the effects of programming to address domestic and sexual violence, sex education, reproductive justice, and economic justice for women,” Stefanie remarks, “ is that a robust understanding of statistics and program evaluation were essential to making effective policy decisions. Law school was not going to give me these skills.” Since she had only taken basic math and economics courses in undergrad, she went back to the Borough of Manhattan Community College. She took pre-calculus, calculus 1, microeconomics and two statistics classes there to prepare for the MPA program. These refresher classes, Calculus 1 in particular, turned out to be very helpful when she took classes with Dr. Brunner (which she highly recommends).

After graduating in 2010 with her MPA and graduate certificate in Survey Research, Stefanie moved to Atlanta with her husband. During that move, she was fortunate enough to have a wonderful mentor at Legal Momentum. He connected her with the former Executive Director at the organization where she currently works, the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC). For the past seven years, she has been using the skillsets she obtained at UCONN DPP every day. She started at CJCC as a Planning and Policy Development Specialist managing programmatic compliance for over 183 local subgrants under the Victims of Crime Act, Violence against Women Act, and Sexual Assault Services Programs. During her tenure in that position, she conducted a survey-based needs assessment to determine victim needs throughout the state, so her team could set funding priorities in the coming years. She also helped define core services for various types of agencies receiving victim services funds.

Stefanie’s passion for research and experience with programmatic grant monitoring gave her the opportunity for her first promotion. She spent a short time as a Planning and Evaluation Program Coordinator where she oversaw a staff of four who worked on programmatic compliance for 11 victims’ services and criminal justice federal funding streams. In 2012, she became Georgia’s Statistical Analysis Center (SAC) Director.

CJCC is an executive branch agency that administers several federal and state formulas and competitive grants. It funds state and local agencies to implement programs benefiting law enforcement, crime victims, offenders, prosecutors, courts, and other criminal justice system actors. The agency also houses the Georgia Criher Victims Compensation Program, which eases the financial burden that innocent victims face after suffering a violent crime. Our agency’s mission is to innovate criminal justice and empower victims of violent crime. The SAC supports all divisions of CJCC with data collection, research, and analysis. What started as a party of two when she first assumed the role in 2012, is now a party of six.

Stefanie’s greatest challenge is the proverbial “too much to do, too little time.” The SAC’s mission is to be the go-to resource for criminal justice and victim services data in Georgia. As a Division of CJCC, the SAC:

  • Pursues competitive and federal formula grants that directly benefit Georgia. In the pursuit of these grants, they regularly collaborate with other local and state agencies. Since Stefanie became Director, they have received $300,000 from their formula grant from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and over $1.8 million in other competitive federal grants
  • Creates and manages data collection tools to track productivity and grant compliance for the over 500 victim services and criminal justice subgrantees that CJCC’s Grants and Policy Division oversees
  • Summarizes the data collected from those tools and provides those to agency leadership, state stakeholders, and their federal funding partners via ad hoc and canned reports. They also manage data analysis and visualization for CJCC’s Agency Annual Report
  • Conducts policy-relevant research for the state and localities – either on their own, or in partnership with local research firms
  • Convenes and facilitates groups of stakeholders to create new local or state programming that is data-driven and process-mapped

The SAC is constantly forging new relationships or leveraging their current relationships to pursue new opportunities to improve Georgia’s criminal justice or victim services systems. The data they manage is voluminous and for a very long time has been stored in piece-meal spreadsheets or databases that need substantial massaging to be useful. Their goal is to routinize the data cleaning and analysis process so our stakeholders – both inside and outside CJCC – have ready access to the information they spend so much time providing to us. However, this amount of data cleaning takes time and they are constantly balancing the pursuit of new initiatives with the work they must do to support day-to-day agency operations.

At UConn Stefanie focused on getting hard research and data analysis skills. She was fortunate to work on various data collections at CJCC. This is where she brought both her survey research and data analysis skills to bear. When designing one-off surveys to measure a need and ongoing data collections, she was very mindful of what she learned in Dr. Dautrich’s Survey Design class and Dr. Craemer’s Attitude Formation class.  Formulating clear and concise questions that adhere to best practices is indeed an art that she tries to fine tune every day. They do a lot of survey and questionnaire design – whether it be for measuring outcomes for victims who receive services from our providers, or gathering information about community needs in various substantive areas. Proper question phrasing to capture exactly what you want to measure is an iterative process. She often asks her staff after a first edit of a survey: “What are you trying to get at with this question?” Usually, after a long-winded explanation, her staff arrive at a more precise formulation.

She also gets to use the SPSS and data analysis skills she learned in Dr. Craemer’s Advanced Quantitative Methods and Dr. Brunner’s Evaluating Public Programs class. They are an SPSS shop and use syntax all the time – recoding, reshaping, and reworking the amount of data they process would be impossible without syntax. Finally, she wishes she had taken Dr. Robbins’ Analysis for Management and Decision-making class. When data cleaning is cumbersome in SPSS (which it certainly can be), she and her staff find themselves pulling data files back into Excel to create new variables using complicated if-statements, VLookups, HLookups, Index(MATCH), and other nerdy data tricks.

Stefanie came to the MPA program knowing she wanted to continue a career in public service and that she wanted to focus her efforts on data-driven policymaking. The summer between her first and second year she went back to Legal Momentum to intern with another one of her mentors. That summer, she worked on a creating the framework to evaluate a program the agency was running in public schools called the Pipeline Project – which aimed at getting girls in middle schools interested in going to vocational high schools. She drafted seven survey instruments for students in various grade levels, administrators, and teachers. She also drafted the research proposal that went to the New York City Public Schools’ Institutional Review Board and conducted data analysis that informed feedback on proposed Department of Labor regulations. Stefanie knew her degree would be useful, but she did not grasp just how much until that summer. That summer’s work cemented her commitment to pursue further statistical coursework and obtain the Graduate Certificate in Survey Research.

Stefanie’s advice for current MPA students (or MPP students) is not to shy away from the toughest courses the MPA program offers you. “If you hear a professor, or a course, is very challenging, take it,” says Stefanie. “This is your opportunity to obtain marketable skills that supervisors on the job will not have the time or patience to teach you. At the GA SAC, they have robust training programs for incoming interns on how to do advanced Excel work, and they do their utmost to teach students how to use SPSS or ArcGIS (geospatial mapping software), but they do not always have the time to walk people through how to use these programs. Having this skillset when you walk in the door is a plus.”

The other advice Stefanie has for MPA students is: find a policy area you love and put your efforts toward building professional experience in that arena. After undergrad, Stefanie knew she wanted to work on women’s rights issues. That decision launched her current career. Knowing about federal funding to combat violence against women was her entrée as a Planner at CJCC. She leveraged her knowledge reserve on that substantive policy issue, with the technical skills she obtained with her MPA, to build a career for herself. On the job, she has learned about several other policy areas: corrections and reentry, data and information sharing, mental illness and criminal justice, gun violence, and so much more. She is a generalist in criminal justice policy, with some narrower research interests, but her technical skills are what got her where she is today.

The greatest lesson Stefanie has learned since leaving the MPA program and working in a research-to-practice role is that she has a substantial skills deficit with respect to more advanced research design and data analysis. The world of program evaluation in the criminal justice sphere is vast and the techniques many researchers use are taught at the PhD level. Therefore, she plans to go back for her PhD to continue doing high impact research and analysis. Whether she stays in a public sector agency or works for private sector research firms – such as The Urban Institute, Vera, or a similar organization – her goal is to add to the knowledge base about what works in criminal justice policy interventions in a way that law makers and practitioners can apply and understand.

(Updated: 5/11/17)

Stefanie Lopez-Howard
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