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John Jay faculty and staff came together for a reception on May 14th to honor 76 of their own who received major and external grants and awards in 2018. The funded projects are a testament to the hard work John Jay’s community devotes to research and to honorees’ dedication to studies and creative work that strengthen the scholarly fabric of the institution. The awards funded projects of all types, from those with potential therapeutic implications to those that could change international policy, and more.
Among the honorees were Dr. Jeff Mellow and Dr. Deborah Koetzle. Their grant, from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, took them to El Salvador to work on alleviating the severely overcrowded conditions in many Salvadoran prisons.
Both Dr. Mellow and Dr. Koetzle have been working to apply evidence-based, empirically-verified practices to corrections for many years, so when the opportunity came to apply their knowledge gained from research in the United States to an international setting, they knew they had to take it. The project took place in cooperation with El Salvador’s National Criminological Council and Director of the General Office of Penal Centers.
El Salvador’s rate of incarceration is among the highest in the world — second only to the United States, with more than 600 out of every 100,000 persons incarcerated. Although the overcrowding rate is slowly coming down thanks to the construction of new prison facilities, the researchers described unhealthy conditions in some prisons. Some facilities were at 800 or 900 percent capacity, with bunks overfilled with bodies, increased risk of infectious disease, and insufficient room for programming or recreation.
Dr. Koetzle described the severely overcrowded prisons as “strangely quiet” and very still, as inmates have little room for movement. “No one should have to live in those types of conditions,” said Koetzle. “But the other side of that is really seeing the government and the system putting forward meaningful, genuine efforts to address it.”
Releasing the bottleneck
The counterpart to overcrowded higher security institutions are the granjas, or minimum security prisons, to which incarcerated individuals can transition as part of their rehabilitative journey toward release. Their gradual reintegration and movement through the system requires a protracted process of repeated assessments. “Inmates have to both finish a minimum of a third of their sentence, and also engage in very extensive programming to move from closed prisons to open prisons,” said Mellow. “But the problem is there’s a bottleneck, and only about 6% of the inmates, out of 40,000, are in the open prisons.”
As part of the government’s effort to ameliorate prison conditions and move people through the system more quickly, the researchers were engaged to hire, train and manage criminological teams — composed of one lawyer, one educator, one psychologist and one social worker — that helped to build capacity to assess inmate progress toward rehabilitation while drafting more than 2,000 proposals to improve the process based on empirical data collected throughout.
“Our goal was to improve the correctional system and policies, to maintain our relationships down there, and help [the government] to introduce additional evidence-based practice and risk assessments that we think can really help them open up bottlenecks and be more efficient and effective in identifying low-risk individuals to move them through the rehabilitative phases,” said Mellow.
They brought to the process many collective years of experience in working to introduce standardized, evidence-based practice to the U.S. correctional system. Both professors also brought back lessons learned from their time in El Salvador that could translate to better practice in the United States, emphasizing the ways Salvadorans involved in the justice system are still encouraged to feel a part of their community on the outside. “They have families much more engaged, and they are really trying to provide for employment opportunities,” remarked Koetzle. “I think on those two fronts in particular, we could learn.”
Mellow also outlined elements of the rehabilitation program, broadly called “Yo Cambio,” that he felt were exceptional, including “conjugal visits, which we rarely do in the United States, and focus on vocational education. They also have a Fair Day where inmates will go out to sell all the wares they’ve made inside the prison, and the national Olympic game day. You can see that they are really trying to show that inmates are part of the community. They’re people.”
The life of a PI
Working on a large international grant was both a challenge and a source of immense satisfaction. “You’re wearing 100 different hats,” said Mellow, who was Primary Investigator on the grant. “Everything from drafting subcontracts to thinking about lunch for the trainings, to dealing with messages every day, getting everybody paid, and dealing with the funder. Plus doing the actual work, and writing the quarterly and final reports and analyzing the evaluation. If you think about it, you’re managing 40-something people.”It was “not typical to have so many staff in institutions for this length of time,” added Koetzle, the project’s Senior Advisor. “[And] engaging in international work stretches you a little bit differently.” They took seven trips to El Salvador during the two-plus years of their grant work, and talked about the greater investment of resources, time and flexibility needed to pull off a successful overseas project.
But the challenges created by managing a large grant from so far away were paired with a huge pay-off. Both Mellow and Koetzle agreed this was one of the most rewarding projects they’d ever undertaken, and talked about the valuable insights they had learned from working in a different context and system. They also had only positive things to say about their team of local staff, both about their capabilities and their constant enthusiasm and dedication.
“That’s something that really stood out — the number of times they thanked us for giving them the opportunity to help their country,” said Koetzle.
Now that the grant has ended, as of February 2019, Dr. Mellow and Dr. Koetzle, along with co-PI and Senior International Officer in John Jay’s Office of International Studies and Programs Mayra Nieves and their program coordinator, PhD candidate and Salvadoran native Lidia Vásquez, are looking ahead. They are working on publishing their results with a Salvadoran university, in Spanish, and would like to see some of their recommendations translated to national policy. Their greatest hope, though, is to find continuing funding to keep doing the work to which they’ve dedicated so much time over the last two years, and perhaps even extend its scope to other nations in Central and South America with similar overcrowding and assessment challenges in their own criminal justice systems.
“We are hoping for the project to come back, “said Mellow. “That is our goal.”
Dr. Jeff Mellow is a Professor in John Jay College’s Criminal Justice Department, Director of the Criminal Justice MA Program, and a member of the doctoral faculty at the CUNY Grad Center. His research focuses on correctional policy and practice, program evaluation, reentry, and critical incident analysis in corrections.
Dr. Deborah Koetzle is an Associate Professor in the Department of Public Management at John Jay College and the Executive Officer of the Doctoral Program in Criminal Justice. Her research interests center around effective interventions for offenders, problem-solving courts, risk/need assessment, and cross-cultural comparisons of prison-based treatments.
If gender inequity is baked into today’s workplace, what can John Jay students and other Master in Public Administration (MPA) candidates do to fix the problem? Dr. Maria D’Agostino, with co-authors Helisse Levine (LIU-Brooklyn) and Meghna Sabharwal (UT-Dallas), published an article in the Journal of Public Affairs Education in March that represents the first step toward answering that question.
Dr. D’Agostino, an Associate Professor in the Department of Public Management, has focused her recent research on women in public administration. Not only are women — along with other persons whose gender presentation isn’t traditionally male — underrepresented in leadership and management roles but, according to the theory of Second Generation Gender Bias, the workplace isn’t even built to accommodate the needs of anyone but men.Longstanding cultural beliefs and biases, formed over many decades, put up invisible barriers to women’s advancement, and workplace structures and practices can inadvertently favor men. One such practice is negotiation, which figures prominently in 21st century workplaces. When negotiating for starting salaries and other benefits, studies show that men see better negotiation outcomes than women, and that these differences are more due to stereotyping and structural bias than to behavioral differences. Negotiated Order theory, which has also heavily influenced D’Agostino’s work, suggests that the results of biased negotiations build up over time, meaning that when women or people of marginalized genders start out behind, they usually stay behind.
D’Agostino believes that MPA programs are a great place to take on these challenges. “A lot of experimentation goes on in the public sector,” she said, giving examples of vital pieces of legislation that have trickled down from government policy to private sector workplaces, including Title IX, Paid Family Leave, and New York City’s 2017 law barring employers from asking about applicants’ salary history.
According to D’Agostino, MPA graduates are often perfectly placed to address inequality. “[Graduates] work in city, state, and federal government, they work in nonprofits, and in the private sector. The essence of public administration is serving the public and the common good, and they are the face of that; they are the decision-makers in terms of creating policy that becomes city, state, and federal law, which can even spread to the private sector. They are both creating and implementing policy, so they have a big impact on the future.”
It is therefore a concern for D’Agostino and her colleagues that more MPA programs aren’t tackling issues of workplace inequality head on. In her study, researchers surveyed MPA administrators to find out how many programs around the country offer courses in negotiation, let alone courses that incorporate elements of gender bias into coursework. They found that “none of the programs offered a standalone course on gendered negotiation, and those that offered courses on negotiation generally only focused on transactional portions,” said D’Agostino.
Her suggestion? Incorporate second generation gender bias into curricula as a core competency for all MPA programs. Raising awareness among students in the field could lead to big changes inside workplaces, but also in the ivory tower. “Academics could do more research, which could inform practice, which would affect training, which would impact the field in terms of gender equity.”
These are big dreams for sweeping change in MPA programs and in offices across the U.S. For now, D’Agostino and her colleagues are developing a conceptual framework for talking about the issue. Her next step is to interview both men and women in various positions in seven states, to try to understand the implications of second generation gender bias as they play out in real workplaces and to hear about real workers’ experience with bias.
You can find the full article, “Gender in negotiation: Preparing public administrators for the 21st century workplace,” online at the Journal for Public Affairs Education’s website.
Maria D’Agostino is an Associate Professor in John Jay College’s Department of Public Management. She is also the co-founder of Women in the Public Sector at John Jay, a program which educates, engages, and fosters a consortium of students, faculty, public service practitioners, and community members interested in women in public service. It promotes gender equality and provides opportunities to address gender issues in public service.
Dr. D’Agostino is the co-recipient, with WPS co-founder Dr. Nicole Elias, of the 2018-19 Inaugural Presidential Student-Faculty Research Collaboration Award from John Jay’s Office of Student Research and Creativity, for the examination of gender equity in municipalities. Her recent research has focused on women in public administration, including a 2018 co-edited book, Governing in a Global World: Women in Public Service.
As an evolutionary biologist, and author of such books as Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals and Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, From Pointless Bones to Broken Genes, Nathan H. Lents has joined the ranks of scientists whose work is under attack by proponents of intelligent design.
There is no coherent theory about intelligent design; according to Lents, the one commonality is that supporters “don’t buy modern evolutionary theory, or some part of modern evolutionary theory. They hold a whole variety of incompatible positions.” The views of intelligent design supporters range from believing the planet was created less than 10,000 years ago, to finding a role for God in gradual or ongoing acts of creation and evolution, to those who think God “set up” for life to evolve as it has in something Lents calls “the Perfect Pool Shot.”
Lents’s most recent book, Human Errors, came out in 2018 to great excitement from the science and reading communities. When it was published, he thought that intelligent design supporters “would just roll their eyes. I didn’t offer it as a serious critique [of intelligent design], so I didn’t think they would respond in a serious way but they absolutely did; they went on the attack.” Lents said it took him months to learn about the different types of creationists and how to respond to and refute their attacks effectively, promoting scientific thought without getting dragged into the mud.
This month, Lents and two co-authors can be found standing up for modern evolutionary theory in Science, a journal that has been at the center of important scientific discovery and thought since its founding in 1880, reviewing Darwin Devolves, a new book by biochemist Michael Behe. He is among the best-known figures in the intelligent design movement; Lents characterizes Behe as a serious man who views his own work as serious science.
“Michael Behe believes in common descent, the true age of the earth, that all living things have evolved, he believes in all of that. But the only thing that he takes issue with is the source of all this diversity in life, that then gets acted on by natural selection. He thinks that God or a supernatural force of some kind has to provide this new influx of genetic information somehow, periodically, and then evolution can play out for a while. Either it was preloaded in the ‘perfect pool shot’ or there are ‘continuing miracles of life.'”
While creationism and trying to explain science with a creationist mindset have always been with us, in the late 1990s Behe introduced a concept called “irreducible complexity,” and this notion has really taken over those who are trying to marry science and creationism. Irreducible complexity is the idea that evolution must be false because natural selection acts by propagating mutations that create advantage for the organism; however, some structures are so complex that they never could have evolved, because their individual pieces must work together to convey advantage. Behe holds that evolution could not have produced all of the interrelated structures in a complex system like, for example, the eye, because the innumerable steps and parts it takes to make up the eye (and therefore to create vision) aren’t advantageous on their own, and therefore could not have evolved without the hand of an intelligent designer.
Lents doesn’t agree with that theory. “What we do know is that these structures don’t evolve as fully-formed units. When the eye was evolving, it wasn’t like a fully-formed retina — boom — just appeared, and then a full-formed lens, that’s not how it works. The whole thing becomes gradually more complex, and then, of course, many, many steps later it looks like if you remove any one part the whole thing doesn’t work, but that’s because it’s evolving as a unit, not stepwise. It’s not like building a car. The good thing is that, if you look at the eye, we can find intermediates, not in the fossil record but in living things right now, that have an earlier version of the eye.”
In this review, Lents sticks to the science. They point to sections or examples in Darwin Devolves that fail to take into account evidence produced by testing modern evolutionary theory. Although Lents and both of his co-authors have been subject to attacks on their work by supporters of creationism, he says he’s learned his lesson about responding to attacks that are ultimately unserious or political in nature.
“I’ve come to realize, Lents says, “that in these exchanges, my real audience is not the intelligent design community. I’m writing for millions of silent readers who come into this debate innocently and earnestly when they see their children start to learn about evolution in middle school and they want to see what’s out there, they want to read for themselves. So that’s who I’m writing for, the people who are just genuinely trying to find answers about what the science really says, what evidence do we really have, that kind of stuff. So I’m not really speaking to the intelligent design community anymore, I’m just speaking to the general public, trying to correct the record on science.”
In fact, that really sums up Lents’s approach to writing more generally. He wrote his second book for the general public, “first of all to entertain, but also to help them understand how these little quirks that we have in our bodies have come to be, and how to live with them, and survive and thrive.” It’s very important to Lents to advance the idea of a scientific mindset, which he says intelligent design proponents don’t have.
“Science, at its best, comes at the evidence and tries to come up with an explanation that best fits that evidence. And even when that explanation starts to become what we call accepted science, it is still tested. But intelligent design supporters, including Michael Behe, their starting point is that they have a truth that they already believe is true, and then they try to mold an explanation for the science around that preconceived notion. So it’s backwards. And that’s why they end up with egg on their face so often, because they’ll come up with an explanation that fits the limited data that we have at one point in time, and then we just get more data and a fuller understanding and they have to keep revising their explanation. And that’s just not a good way to come up with the truth.”
Lents plans to continue writing fact-based science texts with the general public in mind, even if he does invite further criticisms from the intelligent design community or other conservative elements. He says he’s currently laying the foundation for his next book, “which is about human sexuality in the evolutionary context. If you see a pattern in my work, it’s that I’m getting more and more controversial with each book.” Lents wants to look at human sexuality as it’s connected to the greater natural world, and the ways that social constructs have shaped our expressions of sexuality. His argument? “A label-free approach to sexuality is much more in line with our natural biology. The only thing labels do is create restrictions.”
Dr. Nathan H. Lents is a Professor of Biology at John Jay College, as well as the Director of John Jay’s Honors College. Apart from being the author of the two books mentioned above, Dr. Lents blogs at The Human Evolution Blog and on Psychology Today. For more, read his bio.
To read his review with co-authors Joshua Swamidass and Richard Lenski in Science, visit the website.