Panelists and audience at the SPIA launch event

SPIA in New Jersey launch emphasizes that research makes for sound public policy

More than 100 people turned out for the formal launch of the SPIA in New Jersey initiative at Sir Arthur Lewis Auditorium at Robertson Hall.

The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs formally launched its SPIA in New Jersey initiative Friday, April 28, convening policy experts, legislators, state agency executives, University faculty and other researchers who stressed the importance of having valid data and analysis to drive public policy decisions.

Dean Amaney Jamal

Dean Amaney Jamal, dean of the School of Public and International Affairs, welcomes the audience to the event.

“This morning you will hear from a distinguished group of New Jerseyans from across the political spectrum who have made meaningful contributions to residents and communities in our state,” SPIA Dean Amaney Jamal said in welcoming remarks at Robertson Hall. “Their presence here today reflects our commitment to take a research-driven, nonpartisan approach to promote policies that foster racial, economic and social justice statewide.

“I am very proud to renew the historic commitment of (SPIA) in this new era with fresh challenges, and to launch a research-based program that seeks to advance the wellbeing of my fellow Garden State residents — especially those who have been historically marginalized, exploited or underserved,” said Jamal, who counts herself among the many immigrants who are self-selected “New Jerseyans by choice.”

“Each of you is a bright star in New Jersey’s public policy constellation,” Anastasia Mann, the founding director of SPIA in New Jersey, told the audience of more than 100 people. She encouraged the crowd to mingle and share ideas, during the half-day event and afterward. “Connection is our m.o.,” she said, “in building a New Jersey in which prosperity is shared.”

In the first keynote address, Stuart Jeff Rabner, chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court and a member of the Princeton class of 1982, noted that data analysis has been a significant factor in how the state judicial system has improved civil and criminal proceedings.  

A researcher’s data showed that poor people were disproportionately languishing in jails because they couldn’t afford the minimum bail payment. That led the state to reform its bail system, largely removing cash requirements in all but the most serious felony cases. The jail population — particularly for the poor —has dropped significantly, Rabner said. He also described a pilot project in four counties that screens those arrested for underlying mental health problems, making referrals to health and diversionary programs.

Those initiatives and other judicial reforms stem from discussions that “benefitted from insights and the experience of subject matter experts, of practitioners, of scholars, of agencies that are engaged directly with the policy.”

“Throughout the nation, the leadership role this university plays is so widely known,” Rabner said. “And that applies to the School of Public and International Affairs as well, its professors, its graduate fellows and its students. What better place to turn to for assistance, to use your words, for research-based public policy.”

Stuart Jeff Rabner, chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court gives the keynote address

Stuart Jeff Rabner, chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, gives the first keynote address.

In the second keynote speech, John Farmer, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and a former attorney general of New Jersey, described how New Jersey has tried to deal with school funding inequities over the years. In a “fact-challenged era,” he said, Princeton, Rutgers and other research institutions in the state have opportunities to identify facts that can’t be controverted and are needed to reach consensus on public policy issues.

“The need for the kind of research that the dean is committed to doing here at SPIA is absolutely essential, and I look forward to working with SPIA and the other universities in the state in developing the kind of hard facts and data that will drive the changes that are so urgently needed here,” Farmer said.

Also speaking was Richard Roper, chair of the Fund for New Jersey and a former SPIA official who was executive director of its former Council on New Jersey Affairs, which he said afforded a frank exchange of ideas in policy discussions informed by research and analysis. Reflecting on SPIA’s service to its students and its home state, Roper said he was excited for what lies ahead with the SPIA in New Jersey initiative.

The day featured panel discussions, the first on “Mount Laurel at 40: The Past and Future of Affordable Housing.” The discussion centered on the on-again, off-again efforts to require New Jersey communities to provide affordable housing.

Moderated by SPIA Ph.D. candidate Matt Mleczko, the panel featured Adam Gordon, associate director of the Fair Share Housing Center; Michéle Delisfort, a council member and former mayor of Union Township; Jayné, director of the state’s Office of Equity; and David Kinsey, a visiting lecturer at SPIA and a planning consultant in Princeton. Panelists discussed an array of affordable housing topics, including efforts to help renters become first-generation homeowners in their families.

Heather Howard, co-director of SPIA’s Global Health and Health Policy program, moderated the second panel, “Addressing the Maternal Health Crisis in New Jersey.”  Panelists were Elizabeth Armstrong, associate professor of sociology and public affairs at SPIA; Lisa Asare, deputy human services commissioner for the State of New Jersey; Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer; and SPIA alum Clarke Wheeler, who will soon be a senior policy analyst on the Reproductive Rights and Health staff at the National Women’s Law Center.

The panelists discussed the disproportionately high rates among Black New Jerseyans for maternal and infant mortality, efforts to provide more services by midwives and doulas, and the state’s recently enacted Universal Home Visit program that offers in-home health assessments for families, including those with newborns and newly adopted children.

Howard said she hoped that New Jersey’s public policy efforts will be models that other states look to for solutions.

“This is the beginning and not the end of the conversation,” she said. “We hope to lift up the exciting work that is done here in New Jersey and connect it to research on campus."

The day’s program ended with brief remarks by SPIA graduate students Liz Brown, Dillon McNamara and Kat Phan.

Audience members listen to panelists at the SPIA in NJ event

Members of the audience listen intently to the proceedings.