Sitting in her office on the fourth floor of SPEA, Evan Lowder spends much of her time scanning through spreadsheets and poring over research literature. She’s working to combine the two into analysis she hopes will be used to inform policies and practices throughout Indiana and beyond.
“I think there’s an obligation for researchers to ask how we can advance the state of science and knowledge around these issues to bring that work back into communities,” says Lowder, who earned her doctorate in psychology at North Carolina State University.
Her focus on socially relevant research is what landed Lowder a position as a postdoctoral research associate with SPEA, working primarily with associate professor Brad Ray, who serves as the director for the Center for Health and Justice Research with the IU Public Policy Institute.
“Evan is committed to ensuring research doesn’t only circulate in academia,” Ray says. “That kind of approach was exactly what we needed for the community-engaged opioid-related research work we were doing.”
In recent months, Lowder and Ray have produced papers on outcomes for EMS-administered naloxone recipients, the undercounting of opioid-related deaths, significant increases in fentanyl-related overdose deaths, and criminal justice professionals’ attitudes toward mental health and substance abuse.
Their work comes as Indiana ramps up efforts to address the epidemic. Lowder says it’s rewarding to see their work contributing to the body of research that is informing change on a statewide level.
“There have been efforts to train coroners in the death certificate coding process to more accurately identify substances that are present in polysubstance use deaths,” she says. “There was statewide legislation passed requiring toxicology data be used in that reporting process as well.”
She adds both of those things are happening because of a growing recognition that current opioid-involved deaths are severely undercounted in Indiana, information reflected in Lowder and Ray’s research.
Yet Lowder is always looking forward. The team is pursuing a grant from the National Institutes of Health that, if approved, would allow them to further study geographic disparities of opioid overdoses in Marion County. That research could serve as a model for other counties to follow.
“Research can change how communities allocate resources to address this epidemic and what they’re willing to put into various programs that operate on the local level,” she adds.
The focus on conducting research that can lead to action is also present in another state project. Lowder, Ray, and SPEA associate professor Eric Grommon are evaluating the Indiana Risk Assessment System Pretrial Assessment Tool (IRAS-PAT). Risk assessment tools are designed to predict whether someone will engage in pretrial misconduct—such as failing to appear in court or committing another crime while awaiting trial—and can be a key determinant in whether that person stays in jail until their hearing.
The state began a pilot program for the risk assessment in 2016, but recognized the need to study the participating counties to measure the tool’s success. Lowder applauds the state for taking essential steps to assess the tool and points to other states that are requiring similar programs without assessing their effectiveness.
“We just don’t know how well this approach works yet,” she explains. “It’s intuitively very appealing, but we don’t have solid evidence that implementing this tool is increasing the fairness or accuracy of decisions. That’s what we hope our research will find.”
While assessing Indiana’s system, Lowder saw an opportunity to take the project one step further: addressing racial bias.
She points to research that shows racial minorities are less likely to be released on their own recognizance and less likely to receive bail. If they do receive bail, the amount is often financially out of reach.
Lowder wants to know if risk assessment tools could help mitigate some of these disparities. The IRAS-PAT project provided access to critical information and organizations that could help answer that question.
After applying for a grant from the National Institute of Justice, Lowder received the funding she needed to pursue the project. Beginning in January 2019, she will examine courts in four counties to see whether judges are using the risk assessment tool properly, if the tool improves fairness, and whether it’s more effective than previous practice.
“Depending on what we find, it could suggest opportunities for enhanced judicial training around risk assessment or whether there’s a need for structured guidelines for how these tools should be implemented,” Lowder says.
Her work on risk assessment bias and the opioid epidemic have stayed true to her mission: conduct socially relevant research and funnel the findings to decision-makers who can implement policies, practices, and programs to address issues.
“Evan’s work has been an excellent example of how community-engaged research and academic research—when done well—are one in the same,” Ray adds.
“As researchers, we have to think about how we can use what we know from an academic standpoint to help address social problems,” Lowder says. “It’s essential that our research never sits in a silo.”