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John Jay Institute Director Champions Education, Advocacy, and Policy Change for Black Empowerment

 

In celebration of Black History Month 2024, Andre Ward,  the Executive Director of the John Jay Institute for Justice and Opportunity, reflects on a journey shaped by personal experiences within the criminal legal system. From incarceration to becoming the John Jay Research Center Director, his experiences drive a vision to empower formerly incarcerated individuals through education and to influence policy changes addressing social and racial inequalities. Read more about his background in the Q&A below. 

As we celebrate Black History Month, can you share a bit about the journey that led you to John Jay’s Institute for Justice and Opportunity and a professional achievement that you believe has contributed to advancing justice and opportunity for the Black community?

 I came to the institute as a result of my past involvement with College Initiative in 2009. I was released from incarceration on January 16, 2009 (the day Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday was observed), and two weeks later, I enrolled in Medgar Evers College. Earning both undergraduate and graduate degrees from CUNY’s Medgar Evers and Herbert H. Lehman Colleges, respectively, created opportunities for me to deepen my commitment to empowering the Black Community. After earning my Master’s Degree in Social Work, I was asked by the department chair at Medgar Evers College to return as an adjunct lecturer, where I taught mostly Black (and Latinx) students for 4 ½ years. Following this professional achievement, I localized myself in non-profit reentry/policy/advocacy work, culminating in a major New York City legislative win with the passage of the Fair Chance for Housing Act in December 2023. This legislation would prevent people with a conviction record from being discriminated against when applying for housing. For many justice-impacted college students like those whom we serve at the Institute for Justice and Opportunity, housing is indispensable to creating stability. This important legislation would protect them and the other 750,000 New Yorkers (80% of whom are Black and Latinx) from being denied access to housing solely on the basis of past justice system involvement.

How has your previous experience prepared you for the role of Research Center Director at the Institute for Justice and Opportunity?

Being directly impacted by the criminal legal system and working with diverse groups and students who had and did not have justice system involvement has prepared me for the role of Research Center Director at the Justice and Opportunity Institute. Additionally, my training as a social worker, policy/legislative change agent, and advocate for justice, fairness, and equity in education, employment, and housing – especially for people with conviction records – has also prepared me for this role. Serving in various capacities in New York City non-profit starting with providing job readiness/career coaching to facilitating academic and life skills workshops for students at Baruch College’s SEEK program and overseeing restorative justice/alternatives to incarceration work for young adults ages, serving as director of workforce development and executive leveled roles in advocacy and education and employment services, has prepared me for this role. My experience of being incarcerated has also served to prepare me for this role.

What is your vision for the Institute in promoting justice and opportunity, particularly within the context of Black communities? 

My vision is to expand how we equip formerly incarcerated students with the knowledge and skills necessary for securing gainful employment, an essential factor often impeded by the stigma of a criminal record. Deepening existing stakeholder relationships while simultaneously innovating in areas of program service provision is part of my vision to move toward national and international education efforts.

Given the current social and racial inequalities landscape, how do you see the institute’s role in influencing policy changes that address these disparities?

The institute can support advocacy efforts that address discrimination in education. It can also join voting rights efforts to get our students involved in changing policy/legislation that impacts their lives. Through narrative sharing and engaging elected officials in the city and state, IJO’s students can become empowered to organize their communities to facilitate change. By doing so, members of the community become co-creators of public safety, thus creating the world they want to see and be in.

How do you see the institute actively contributing to the ongoing narrative of Black history and progress?

Education transcends the mere acquisition of knowledge; it serves as a catalyst for personal transformation. For formerly incarcerated individuals, this transformation can be profound. Education instills self-worth, purpose, and a vision for the future, offering a beacon of hope and a pathway to self-improvement. IJO will continue to serve as a place where justice-involved students can come. And through the impact IJO has on students, coupled with students developing an understanding of themselves, they will become assets to the community, creating a history of contribution that adds value to the black community and humanity.

IJO will actively nurture essential life skills, including critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making, which can be a powerful tool for psychological healing, helping individuals overcome the stigma and emotional burdens associated with their criminal history.

Western and Redburn (2017) emphasize in their seminal work, Education as Crime Prevention: The Case for Reinvesting in Prison Higher Education, that the role of education is to serve as a platform for self-improvement and a means for shifting individuals’ perspective from their past to their potential. This transformational aspect of education is pivotal in successfully reintegrating formerly incarcerated individuals into society, and IJO will maintain this work – especially during Black History Month.

How are you celebrating Black History Month?

I am celebrating Black History Month by actively making monetary and skills contributions to small Black organizations that support the communities we come from and focus on reentry and higher education services for people with a conviction record. I am also celebrating the amazing good fortune I have to serve our students alongside my deeply committed colleagues at IJO. Together, we are making a difference in the lives of Black people in particular, and humanity generally – one powerful academic student at a time.

Read more about the John Jay Institute for Justice and Opportunity here.

Luis Barrios Proposes Ecuadorian Prison Reform – John Jay Scholars on the News

Nightmarish conditions inside Ecuador’s prisons have exploded into international news. Overcrowding, a struggle for territory between drug cartels, and correctional officers’ loss of control inside carceral facilities set the scene for a series of prison riots beginning in February 2021 that have claimed the lives of numerous incarcerated people—just how many have been killed or injured is still not known.

Image shows a yellow metal door partially open to show an empty prison cell within
Inside deserted prison Penal Garcia Moreno, Quito, Ecuador (Image from Shutterstock)

The drug trade in Ecuador has been operating from its prisons for some time, but violence flared up after the charismatic leader of Ecuador’s largest drug cartel, Los Choneros, was murdered in late 2020. To attempt to address the problem, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso in December 2021 convened a commission that, in his words, “would analyze the causes and effects of the current prison situation.” But according to Dr. Luis Barrios, a professor in John Jay’s Latin American and Latinx Studies Department and in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Psychology and Social Welfare programs, the conditions that allowed this to happen have been around since long before 2021.

“Stop saying this is an inmate issue,” he says, quoting a recent report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “this is a structural, systemic issue.” Barrios points to a culture of reaction rather than prevention, a lack of effective public policy to deal with criminal justice matters, and pervasive corruption. All of this has created an environment inside the prisons where violence is incentivized. “In this type of environment, this is the way to survive. You kill or they kill you. That is part of the reality that we want to describe.”

Dr. Barrios serves as one of seven members of the independent commission created by President Lasso; his participation came at the request of the incarcerated. His scholarship brought him into contact with and gained the trust of gang members on the streets of Ecuador, New York City, and elsewhere, working with John Jay professor David Brotherton to study gangs as social organizations. Now he brings that expertise to this work, visiting prisons one week of every month through June 2022 in order to produce a report that will effect real change in Ecuador.

“As a commission, we went beyond diagnosis; we went inside the prison, we are spending quality time. You can feel the pain, frustration, and anger,” says Barrios. “So instead of just giving a diagnosis, we decided to create proposals that the government can implement immediately to deal with this prison crisis.”

Among the proposals called for by commission members: an increased focus on crime prevention rather than punishment; human rights protections; decentralization of the legal and judicial system; better training for correctional officers and prison administrators; an effective prison census; and access to health services and educational opportunities for the incarcerated, including programs that give inmates other options besides engaging in the drug trade.

Dr. Barrios brings his activism to both of his vocations: academia and the priesthood. He sees both as complimentary opportunities to empower communities and work for justice. This work informs his objections to the Ecuadorian government’s proposed “mano dura,” or zero tolerance, approach to shutting down gang violence in prisons. Above all, he seeks to use his role on the commission to protect Ecuador’s vulnerable incarcerated populations and guarantee that the government respects human rights. “There’s no neutrality when it comes to dealing with justice,” he says. “You take the side of justice or you take sides against it—when you say you’re not going to get involved, you are already involved.”

A headshot of Rev. Dr. Luis Barrios, smiling at the camera and wearing a red scarfDr. Luis Barrios has been a faculty member at John Jay College for 28 years, and at CUNY for even longer. During that time, he has worked on projects that blend social action and scholarship, involving gangs and gang violence, deportation, human rights, clinical work focused on trauma and abuse, and contemporary perspectives of life on the Dominican-Haitian border.

Back to the Lab with Dr. Jason Rauceo

Headshot of Dr. Jason Rauceo, wearing a blue plaid shirt, arms folded
Dr. Jason Rauceo

John Jay College, along with CUNY schools across the city, are moving toward the resumption of on-campus life. Classes are attended in-person, events are being planned, and professors and students alike are headed back into the laboratory. I talked to one of John Jay’s professors in the Department of Sciences, Dr. Jason Rauceo, to find out what it’s been like closing down and reopening his lab.

Dr. Rauceo is an Associate Professor of Biology whose research focuses on the major fungal pathogen Candida albicans. He is also the Director of the Cell and Molecular Biology major at John Jay. In 2021, Dr. Rauceo received a four-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the role of the mitochondrion in C. albicans’ ability to infect hosts and cause disease.

 

What was it like to get back to lab work after a significant time away during the early part of the pandemic? Did you have to change any protocols or make adjustments to your operating procedures?

Right before CUNY closed in March 2020, I shut the lab down with the expectation that I would not return for 6-12 months. I returned to campus in September 2020, and the major challenge was reopening the lab myself. Students were not allowed on campus, and I needed to calibrate several instruments that I had limited experience operating. Fortunately, my students were available via Zoom and FaceTime for assistance.

 

What does a typical day in the lab look like, if there is such a thing?

The day usually begins with a short one-to-one meeting with whomever is scheduled to perform an experiment, in which we mainly discuss logistics. Throughout the day, I periodically check in to assist and address any experimental issues if needed. At the end of the day, I inspect the lab to make sure that workspaces are cleaned, all reagents and supplies are properly stored, and all students have left the lab.

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What function do students play in your lab?

Students perform the hands-on experimentation and data analysis, and are responsible for general lab maintenance. They also contribute to the development of their projects, which must be directly related to the lab agenda—in this case, C. albicans biology. Students may propose their own experiments for approval after approximately 1.5 to 2 years of experience in the lab.

 

You place a lot of emphasis on experiential-based learning. What does that mean in practice for your students?

I allow students to test their own hypotheses when safety and costs are not an issue. Also, I allow students to make their own errors during initial training exercises. I found that this approach in lab research builds confidence.

Generally, in the early stages of a new project, a significant amount of time is devoted to optimizing protocols to meet our objectives. During this “optimization phase” of the research, there is an extensive level of troubleshooting required, and a high level of error and ambiguity is observed. I found that a major payoff of experiential-based learning and training is that students propose unique approaches to addressing experimental obstacles.

 

Your study of SPFH (Stomatin, Prohibitin, Flotillin, HflK/HflC) proteins’ role in mitochondrial function in Candida albicans is being funded by the NIH. It seems that there are some exciting implications for developing antifungal treatments—can you tell me about that?

SPFH proteins are widely conserved in nature and are found in most living organisms. These proteins are important for major biological processes including, but not limited to, respiration, transport, and communication. Candida albicans is a fungus that resides in all humans on mucosal surfaces such as the mouth and gastrointestinal tract in a harmless state. However, changes in our immunity sometimes cause C. albicans infections. Immunocompromised individuals are highly susceptible to C. albicans infections.

Currently, the function of SPFH proteins is limited in C. albicans. We were the first research group to demonstrate that SPFH proteins are required when C. albicans is challenged with environmental stress. Our current proposal seeks to define the molecular function of SPFH proteins. We are collaborating with several prominent research groups in fungal biology and medicinal chemistry to determine the function of the SPFH proteins in mitochondrial function.

One of our project aims is to understand the effects of treating C. albicans with natural compounds that target SPFH proteins. Our initial findings are promising and may be useful in developing novel antifungal strategies.

The NIH award provided me with the funds to expand my lab operations, and I’ve recruited three new undergraduate students; therefore, I will be spending much of the next semester in student training and performing experiments.

Sewage and the Science of Public Health – Dr. Shu-Yuan Cheng and Dr. Marta Concheiro-Guisan Track Wastewater Contaminants

“Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant” by Pabo76 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Wastewater is a topic that the average New Yorker doesn’t think about often, but perhaps we should. Sewage and run-off, over a billion gallons of which are treated every single day in New York City by 14 wastewater resource recovery facilities, are a valuable resource for scientists.

Wastewater sampling has been a useful tool for public health researchers tracking the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) launched the National Wastewater Surveillance System in September 2020 as a means of tracking virus spread and community prevalence. Viral genetic material is transmitted in fecal matter to the sewers and waste treatment plants, where researchers can take samples. Their work can serve as an early warning of community spread, track variants, and inform public health strategies for responding to the virus. Even better, wastewater surveillance doesn’t require individuals to seek out healthcare in order to capture information, meaning that the resulting data can include people who may be asymptomatic, who have taken home tests, or who have not been tested at all.

Wastewater data have figured prominently in several interesting COVID-19 stories recently in the news. In January 2022 the CDC reported that mutations associated with the Omicron variant showed up in New York City wastewater in November 2021, before the variant was officially reported in South Africa and at least a week before the first U.S. case was identified via clinical testing, suggesting that Omicron was likely circulating in communities before cases could be officially confirmed. And The New York Times recently reported on mysterious fragments of viral RNA with novel mutations detected in NYC wastewater, which are stumping researchers. They haven’t been able to pin down where these fragments are coming from, nor why these mutations have not shown up in clinical testing of human or animal populations in the city.

“Pulaski Bridge Drawing” by Pabo76 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Two John Jay College researchers, Dr. Shu-Yuan Cheng and Dr. Marta Concheiro-Guisan, are also big proponents of wastewater sampling studies as a public health tool. Their own research, published in 2019, tracked drug use over one year in New York City, using one-time grab samples to test for levels of cocaine, nicotine, cannabis, opioids, and amphetamines in the sewage. Now, the scientists are collaborating with non-profits that test the health of the city’s waterways, trying to correlate levels of pharmaceuticals in our rivers with the amount of harmful bacteria.

To Dr. Cheng and Dr. Concheiro-Guisan, wastewater analysis’s great strength lies in early warning and early intervention. “It’s a great tool for prediction, for public health, crime fighting, and disease [prevention] purposes,” says Dr. Cheng. “The official report is often too late, but if you can do an early intervention, find the issue and start addressing it, there’s a lot you can do.”

“We looked at wastewater because we saw the utility,” says Dr. Concheiro-Guisan. “This is a different application [than viral tracking] but with the same thought: that what we eliminate from our bodies tells you a lot about your population.”

However, the United States is late to the game. Though the CDC has had results with its national COVID-19 tracking program, both researchers lament the lack of a centralized American body to apply this research to other public health applications. They’d like to see the U.S. follow the example set in European countries, China, Australia, and increasingly in South America, where governments have applied wastewater sampling to create campaigns warning their citizens about novel psychoactives, catch drug manufacturers, and more.

“It’s a very important public health tool that is showing results,” says Dr. Concheiro-Guisan. “If you start in the biggest city in the country, if you start in New York, then others will follow.”

 

Dr. Shu-Yuan Cheng is an Associate Professor and Chair of John Jay’s Department of Sciences. Her research is in the areas of toxicology and forensic pharmacology, including the roles that environmental toxins play in neurodegenerative diseases, identifying the target genes and signaling pathways affected by environmental toxins, and investigating pharmacological mechanisms of anti-cancer medications.

 

Dr. Marta Concheiro-Guisan is Assistant Professor of Forensic Toxicology in John Jay’s Department of Sciences. Her research focuses on the development and validation of analytical methods by gas and liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry and their application to different specimens, the detection of drug exposure during pregnancy, and the toxicological study of new psychoactive substances.

Critical Sociology At Work Around the Globe – David Brotherton and the Social Change Project

Dr. David Brotherton is in high demand. As founder and director of the Social Change and Transgressive Studies Project, a research project at John Jay, he leads grants that span multiple countries and touch subjects from post-release reintegration to immigration and the deportation pipeline. His long background and expertise in critical criminology and sociology have suited him to lead the varied types of prestigious grants the project obtains. Brotherton says that the work has three key points of overlap: “One part is to be able to transcend the academy, to translate your findings from the theory to what it actually means to people. Second, you’re doing work that immediately has an impact, to understand or respond to a social problem. And the third thing is to work with the underrepresented, the marginalized, and to help develop knowledge that goes back to them, to empower them.”

With a mission statement like that, how could the Social Change Project not have ended up at John Jay College? Founded in 2017, the organization almost lived at the CUNY Graduate Center; however, a set of happy accidents brought it to John Jay, where, co-directed by Brotherton and Professor of Sociology Dr. Jayne Mooney, it has been funded every year. Under the project’s umbrella live two working groups: the Social Anatomy of a Deportation Regime, a working group that focuses on “crimmigration” and the dynamics of border control and migrant detention, and the Critical Social History Project, which features Mooney’s work chronicling the history of incarceration in New York. Today, the Social Change Project is doing work with ramifications that will be felt all over the globe.

 

The Deportation Pipeline

Growing up in a working class London neighborhood, Brotherton has always been interested in the day-to-day conditions and labelling faced by people just trying to get by. His first career in youth organizing and present career in sociology and criminology have a focus in common: applying knowledge to empower the disadvantaged. His background led him to research gangs and incarceration, which brought him to the place he is in today.

As he tells the story, Brotherton’s work with infamous gang organization the Latin Kings in New York brought him to the Dominican Republic in the early 2000s, where he was giving a talk on his project. “People didn’t want to know about the gangs, all they wanted to know was, why are you sending them all back here?” says Brotherton. “And I said, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out.’” That was the start of his investigations into transnational gangs and the issue of deportation, which at the time was not well-studied. That work has led to multiple grants and studies, books including Banished to the Homeland: Dominican Deportees and Their Stories of Exile and Immigration Policy in the Age of Punishment: Detention, Deportation, Border Control, and the evolution of the multinational TRANSGANG project in Europe, which he advises.

This spring, Brotherton’s project will be working with personnel from Rutgers, including John Jay College graduate Sarah Tosh, to kick off the Deportation Pipeline Project, funded by the National Science Foundation. The team will interview a variety of subjects – immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago, including some who have been detained for deportation hearings; lawyers; judges; and even ICE agents if possible – to understand the racialized “deportation pipeline” that runs through NYC back to the Caribbean, and the current situation these communities are living through under the Biden Administration.

“We need to understand all this, and then we’re going to be looking at all the texts that come down, the sanctions, all the laws. We know that Biden has said we’re going after criminal agents and gang members, which is just carrying on from Trump, but I thought we were supposed to have a new, more humane approach. So is it new wine in old bottles or are we going to get a real change in behavior? I don’t know.”

The two-year study will culminate in a book on the topic, as well as a conference with representatives from other municipalities. But Brotherton is already looking past the conclusion of the research to a potential comparative study in another large city or small town, to understand the dynamics of deportation in other American environments with similar demographics being targeted by immigration officials.

 

Critical Gang Studies

Brotherton with CUNY Professor Luis Barrios and leaders of the Latin Kings, 1997

The Social Change Project is also looking forward to wrapping up several projects in the coming months. Since 2019, Brotherton has been consulting for the World Bank in El Salvador, developing national strategies for rehabilitation and reinsertion programs for formerly-incarcerated gang members in that country, which has the second-highest rate of imprisonment in the world after the United States. In April the project published a paper summarizing those findings, and expanding on them. “As we were writing this, we realized there is no real program for rehabilitation anywhere in Latin America, no probation, nothing like that,” says Brotherton. “Once you come out of prison, you’re on your own. So what we’re developing for El Salvador is really a model for the whole of Latin America.”

And July will see the publication of an edited volume, the Routledge International Handbook of Critical Gang Studies, which Brotherton edited along with Rafael Jose Gude, a Research Fellow at the Social Change Project. The book, which includes chapters by a number of CUNY faculty and graduates, will offer new perspectives on gang studies, placing them in the context of their political and social environments. According to Brotherton, it will cover perhaps 18 different countries and will be the largest handbook Routledge has ever released at nearly 900 pages long.

 

Incarceration and the Credible Messengers

Finally, Brotherton is working on a book on the Credible Messenger phenomenon, due out in 2022. The book, titled What’s Love Got To Do With It?: Credible Messengers and the Power of Transformative Mentoring, begins with a history of the now-widespread program, which recruits the formerly-incarcerated to intervene with young, at-risk kids from their neighborhoods, to keep them away from involvement with the criminal legal system. The book also incorporates qualitative research, including interviews with Messengers, kids, and administrators, as well as the currently incarcerated.

The Social Change Project and Brotherton himself are juggling many projects, each with many moving parts. But Brotherton relies on the connections he’s made over his career teaching at both John Jay and the CUNY Graduate Center, and doing research around the world, to keep the plates spinning. “It’s difficult,” he says. “Sometimes it gets overwhelming, but I always try to make sure I’ve got really good people in each project.”

At the end of the day, Brotherton is proud to be doing work that makes a difference for underserved, understudied communities that can face immense challenges. “I think the project carries on a rich tradition at John Jay. We’re following that tradition of socially conscious, critical social science.”

 

David Brotherton headshotDr. David Brotherton is a Professor of Sociology at John Jay College, and of Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center. His research focuses on gangs and globalization, immigration, and deportation and border control. He is the author of numerous books and articles, and has received grants from a variety of public and private agencies.

Frank Pezzella Wants Increased Accountability on Hate Crime Reporting

During the chaotic years of the Trump Administration, the United States experienced a rise in hate crimes. This increase has been confirmed by FBI data collection, media reporting, and independent scholarship. According to Dr. Frank Pezzella, an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at John Jay College and a scholar of hate crimes, four out of the past five years, from 2015 to 2019, have seen consecutive increases in hate crime offending in this country, something he says is new. Nine of the ten largest American cities had the most dramatic increases in hate crimes – including New York City.

Hate crimes, or bias crimes, are strictly defined by the FBI. The organization sets out 14 indicators that must be present for a criminal offense to be classified as a hate or bias crime, that provide objective evidence that the crime was motivated by bias. But according to Dr. Pezzella, the evidence to meet those criteria isn’t always clear. Not every hate crime is as flagrant as the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016 or the 2018 attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. To establish a hate crime was committed, first responding police officers must look for evidence of bias motivation – what Pezzella calls an “elevated mens rea” requirement. But bias can only be committed against legally protected categories, like race and ethnicity, sexual or gender orientation, disability, or religion, which vary from state to state. And the additional paperwork and procedural requirements that come with classifying an incident as a hate crime are, in his words, disincentivizing police reporting.

Undercounting Hate Crimes

cover image of Frank Pezzella's book, The Measurement of Hate Crimes in AmericaThe result of these complications is rampant underreporting. In his new book, The Measurement of Hate Crimes in America, Dr. Pezzella looks at the reasons why hate crimes are so undercounted in the United States, and proposes some solutions for what law enforcement and policymakers can do to correct the issue. Since the enactment of the federal Hate Crimes Statistics Act in 1990, which required the Attorney General to collect data about hate crimes, the FBI has been fulfilling this mandate in the form of the Hate Crime Statistics Program, published annually as part of the Uniform Crime Report. According to Dr. Pezzella, since 1990 the UCR has reported an average of roughly 8,000 hate crimes per year; but victims, he says, report around 250,000 hate crimes per year. He attributes this substantial gap to a variety of factors including the evidentiary and procedural barriers noted above. In addition, only about 100,000 of these victimizations are ever reported to the police in the first place. And when victims do report, police departments are under no legal requirement to pass their findings on to the FBI.

“Of the roughly 18,500 police departments, only maybe 75% participate in the Uniform Crime Report hate crime reporting program – note that it is voluntary,” says Pezzella. “So we don’t even know about hate crimes in 25% of precincts. And of the participating 75%, roughly 90% report zero hate crimes every year. So one of the reasons we wrote the book is that, either we don’t have hate crimes the way we think we do, or we have a systemic reporting problem.” It’s obvious which he believes is true.

The consequences of underreporting hate crimes are severe, Dr. Pezzella says. “To the extent that we underreport both the type and extent of victimization, it really does put a specific policy issue in front of us. We need to know who’s being affected, how they’re being affected, and the extent of the effect, in order to fashion remedies.” The only way to target treatment and services for the most vulnerable and likely victims is through accurate reporting.

Remedying Undercounting

In order to remedy undercounting and better target policy, Dr. Pezzella presents a number of recommendations in The Measurement of Hate Crimes in America. He calls for changes to take place within police departments, at the level of state and local politics, and in the criminal legal system. First, he suggests that every precinct have a written and clearly posted hate crime policy, and that every officer be trained to understand the rules for identifying bias crimes and the statutes governing them in their particular state. He would also like to see greater police-community engagement on this issue, with better tracking of non-criminal bias incidents – like seeing a swastika or other racist tag in the neighborhood – which Pezzella says often lead to violent bias crimes. He would especially like to see hate crime reporting made mandatory, with penalties or audits following a departmental report of zero bias crimes in a year.

Stepping out of police departments, Dr. Pezzella also calls for greater engagement from state and local politicians, who after all control the purse strings as well as set state legislation, but who are often hesitant to call attention to a problem with hate crimes in their district. Finally, he wants prosecutors’ offices to commit to seeking hate crime convictions, rather than settling for the easier task of convicting an offender for non-bias equivalents. With every actor across the board invested in tackling hate crimes and being transparent and proactive about applying best practices, offenders are put on notice that the community, including police, won’t allow these harmful crimes to continue.

Vicarious Victimization

Dr. Pezzella has been studying hate crimes since his graduate school years at SUNY-Albany, but he doesn’t feel he’s reached the end of this line of research. Going forward, he is interested in studying the deleterious and vicarious effects hate crimes can have on the victims’ communities. Because bias-motivated offenders target victims based on what they are rather than what they do, Dr. Pezzella says, there is a sense that anyone could become the next victim. This impersonal threat undermines societal ideals of trust and equality, and can even affect property values, as whole groups feel unsafe in certain areas and may be forced to relocate. Pezzella also mentions the psychological and emotional impacts of feeling under threat for simply being who and what you are. “When a victim goes home and says they were a victim of a hate crime, in what way does it impact the quality of life or sense of safety for secondary victims [i.e., the victim’s community]?” he asks. “What do they do? While we understand the direct impact, we know less about this vicarious impact, and how far it extends beyond the primary victim.”

He also has his eye on current events, especially the rise of domestic terrorism in the United States. Dr. Pezzella is concerned about the growing number of organized hate groups in recent years, and how emboldened they have been by rhetoric from the top levels of government. While many mass shootings have  been categorized as domestic terrorism, Pezzella also sees evidence of bias that might categorize these events as hate crimes. If they are being left out of crucial counts that help to allocate resources and fight back against hate in this country, he wants to know.

 

Frank Pezzella stands in front of a step-and-repeat that reads "Smart on Crime," he is visible to the knee and holding his hands clasped in front of his bodyDr. Frank Pezzella is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at John Jay College. His primary research focus is on the causes, correlates, and consequences of hate crimes victimizations. He also conducts research on issues that relate to race, crime and justice. In addition to his most recent book, he is also the author of Hate Crime Statutes: A Public Policy and Law Enforcement Dilemma, as well as numerous peer-reviewed articles.

Eric Piza is Bringing the Data on Police Reform

Police reform is everywhere in the news, and everyone has a different perspective on the issue, from activists to police practitioners to politicians. John Jay Associate Professor of Criminal Justice Dr. Eric Piza is a former crime analyst who studies both police reforms — like the impact of body-worn cameras on police effectives — and the manner in which those reforms are undertaken. He emphasizes the importance of program evaluation in the area of police reform: “Far too often, people talk about implementing specific reforms without acknowledging whether or not we have a sufficient evidence base to know whether those reforms will bring about the intended effects.”

But who is best-positioned to evaluate the changes police agencies are making and help them institute the reforms that are best-suited to meet police and community goals? Piza recently published a study in peer reviewed journal Policing that explored ways police departments can employ their own personnel to evaluate reforms, bringing a greater sense of ownership and, perhaps, generating greater willingness to embrace change. With his co-authors, CUNY Ph.D. candidates in criminal justice Jason Szkola and Kwan-Lamar Blount-Hill, Piza took a look at the roles three different types of police evaluators can play in police-led scientific reform.

(The article is “How Can Embedded Criminologists, Police Pracademics, and Crime Analysts Help Increase Police-Led Program Evaluations? A Survey of Authors Cited in the Evidence-Based Policing Matrix.” Click to access the full article.)

Police-led science, or science-led policing?

While program evaluation — or, the empirical evaluation of programs’ effectiveness — has typically been considered the purview of academics looking in on police practice from the outside, Piza argues that police-led evaluation of reform leads to greater ownership of new practice. “If police can play a role in generating and conducting research, I think it’s just human nature that they’d be a little more open to its implementation, because they were part of the process. They probably also have more understanding of what the research means [than academics]. That will help generate support from the police to implement the kind of reforms that are necessary,” says Piza.

But conducting empirical research requires training that not all police practitioners have. Piza and his co-authors looked at three types of analysts working from within the police apparatus — embedded criminologists, police pracademics, and crime analysts — to find out the roles each can play in strengthening police-led reform. To do so, the authors carried out a survey of criminal justice scholars working in the area of evidence-based policing. They asked three research questions: what factors make successfully evaluating police practices difficult; how easily can each of the three types of “internal analysts” be incorporated into police program evaluation activities; and how capable is each type of analyst of conducting program evaluation tasks?

In the end, their results showed that each of the three has a role to play. “The best way is to leverage them together, because they’re all going to give different benefits. Embedded criminologists, who are typically Ph.D.-level researchers, they’re going to do the best job of designing research and program evaluations, but that’s only step one in getting reform through,” says Piza. “Research results have to be communicated to the leadership in a language that actually makes sense to them. When changes are made based upon those research results, someone has to monitor the new state of affairs and make sure the police are doing what they claim to be doing. Crime analysts and police pracademics are probably more important than embedded criminologists when we get to that phase of the process.”

Prompting change

Piza is optimistic that police departments will be receptive to calls for reform from community leaders and activists. As the community shifts the focus in conversations about reform, he hopes to see police apply the same openness they showed to adopting crime control reforms to future proposed changes.

“Police have been willing to experiment with new strategies and to rethink their mission. The last couple of years have reminded us that crime control and prevention is only one goal of policing. Limiting use of force, improving police-community relations and perceptions of police legitimacy, these are also very important goals of policing. I think the community reminding the field of that is going to be very important.”

The future of policing

Dr. Piza has his eye on the future of effective policing, with two books on the subject forthcoming. The first is a handbook that walks crime analysts through a transition to the next generation of a popular crime mapping software, ArcGIS Pro. Rather than just a standard software manual, Piza describes the book as using a variety of case studies and empirical research to help analysts think about how to apply the new version of the technology to solving the real-world problems they encounter every day.

The second, which Piza is co-editing with Brandon Welsh (Northeastern University), will feature chapters by international experts on various programs that assist police in integrating practice and research; he and Welsh will contribute a chapter on technology. While the United States may be going through unique policing challenges at the moment, Piza sees commonalities that will make the volume, to be titled The Globalization of Evidence-Based Policing, useful to practitioners and academics around the world. “Even if the problems and outcomes of interest are different,” he says, “everyone struggles with the basic premise of having 30 to 40 years of really good, rigorous policing research, and how we can get the police to better engage with that body of research.”

Piza is also influencing the future of policing research in another way: many of his articles are co-authored with Ph.D. students from CUNY’s own criminal justice program, just as the Policing article was. Piza says their passion for the field helps him to stay present and remember the bigger impact studies like his can have on real people and real communities. “They bring a level of rigor and passion,” Piza says of his graduate student collaborators. “It’s easy to become jaded in this field, especially with the current environment, so it’s been helpful to surround myself with students who are passionate about these topics. They are always there to remind me why this is bigger than myself.”

 

Eric Piza, from the chest up, wearing a blue suit jacket and standing in front of a row of glass doorsEric Piza is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His research focuses on the spatial analysis of crime patterns, problem-oriented policing, crime control technology, and the integration of academic research and police practice. His recent research has appeared in peer-reviewed journals including Criminology, Criminology & Public Policy, Crime & Delinquency, Journal of Quantitative Criminology, Justice Quarterly and more. In support of his research, Dr. Piza has secured over $2.2 million in outside research grants, including funding from the National Institute of Justice. In 2017, he was the recipient of the American Society of Criminology, Division of Policing’s Early Career Award in recognition of outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of policing.

Watch a Faculty Research Spotlight interview with Dr. Piza on John Jay’s YouTube channel.

Victoria Bond’s ‘Zora and Me’ Trilogy Closes With ‘The Summoner’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Victoria Bond is a lecturer in John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s English Department, and the co-author with T. R. Simon of a series of young adult novels inspired by the childhood of American literary icon Zora Neale Hurston. The Zora and Me trilogy fictionalizes a young Zora as what The New York Times calls a “girl detective,” living in Hurston’s real-life hometown of Eatonville, Florida. Through the use of tropes from mystery and horror, the books explore community, and the fragility of justice for Black people.

In the first novel, Zora and Me, stories about a shape-shifter lead Zora and her best friend Carrie (the narrator) to solve a murder mystery. The second novel of the series, The Cursed Ground, sees Carrie and Zora learning more about the dark, unforgiveable history of slavery from a ghost. And in Bond’s latest and final novel, Zora and Me: The Summoner, Eatonville experiences upheaval that causes Zora’s family to seek their fortunes elsewhere. The use of zombies in this book, Bond says, is a way to explore the exploitation and trauma of African American lives.

Victoria Bond

Each installment of the trilogy may incorporate dark, scary elements, but, according to Kirkus Reviews, the brilliance of the novels is that they are able to render African American children’s lives during the Jim Crow era as “a time of wonder and imagination, while also attending to their harsh realities.”

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891 and published several novels and many short stories, plays and essays, although she is best known for her classic Harlem Renaissance novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Zora and Me was the first novel not written by Hurston herself that has been endorsed by the Zora Neale Hurston Trust, founded in 2002. To bring the real Zora’s experiences in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, to life, Bond and Simon researched Hurston’s life extensively by reading her biographies and her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. They sought to create a story right for young adult readers that was true to the historical period in which it takes place, and which features a smart, spirited Black girl with a vivid imagination, ready to inspire other girls.

Zora and Me: The Summoner is forthcoming from Candlewick Press on October 13, 2020, and available for preorder now. To learn more about Zora Neale Hurston from author Vicky Bond, watch her in this short video on YouTube. Or to learn more about the experience of writing a novel during these uniquely difficult times, read this post from the author.

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