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Professor Alessandra Early is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at John Jay College and a dedicated criminologist whose academic journey is rooted in a passion for understanding the intricacies of human behavior and identity. From a childhood curiosity that questioned the fundamental nature of numbers to becoming a professor, her commitment to knowledge has been unwavering. With a background in psychology and sociology, she transitioned to criminology, driven by a fascination with the dynamics explored in shows like Criminal Minds.
Dr. Early’s research delves into the intersection of spatial dynamics, identity formation, and behavior, particularly focusing on queer experiences and the impact of social spaces. In this Q&A, Dr. Early shares her insights into research, professional achievements, mentoring philosophy, and her vision for contributing to the academic community.
Can you share a bit about your academic journey and what led you to pursue a career in criminology?
Since I was young, I’ve wanted to help people and investigate the “hows” and “whys” behind everything around me. As a kid learning math, I peppered my mother with questions incessantly, completely unsatisfied with the superficial and desperately seeking to learn a greater meaning. “Why is a one a one?” I asked. “What makes a two a two?” That pursuit of knowledge has become a core mission in my life and led me to become a professor today.
As an undergrad, I majored in psychology and sociology. I fantasized about becoming an FBI profiler thanks to my obsession with Criminal Minds, and I kept finding myself drawn to criminology courses. That tendency persisted when I pursued my master’s in sociology as well; I really connected with some professors who really believed in me and my work. I decided to follow that path and complete my PhD in criminology and criminal justice. (Though I moved away from law enforcement.)
Being a professor means I always have to adapt and evolve as new knowledge develops, which I love. I enjoy reading, learning, and problem-solving and my job asks me to engage in all three. Interacting with students is such a privilege because I want them to have the same light-bulb “Aha!” moments in my classrooms that I used to experience as a student myself.
Could you highlight some of your key research interests or projects, and how do you see them contributing to your field or broader society?
Broadly speaking, my research is rooted in three intersecting areas: Spatial and place-based dynamics, identity formation, and behavior. Specifically, I am interested in the ways in which spaces, particularly social spaces, impact how people understand themselves and can encourage or inhibit behavior. My dissertation, for example, explored how the historical, social, and cultural spatial dynamics of queer social spaces (such as bars and clubs), and using substances within them, can impact queer identities. One finding was that queer people strategically used substances to explore their identities and navigate queer vs. heterosexual social spaces.
Another project investigated the interplay between space(s), identities, and substance use through the experiences of primarily white heterosexual women who had experience with the rural methamphetamine market before being incarcerated. We emphasized the complex, violent, and empowering strategies that women used to confront and overcome gendered and sexualized expectations while participating within the patriarchal market.
My research interests engage in “queering” or destabilizing normative understandings of how we move through our environments, create meaning within them, formulate our identities in opposition to or with the help of those environments, and how those environments and the meanings we prescribe to them encourage or inhibit our behaviors.
Have there been any significant milestones or achievements in your professional journey that you are particularly proud of?
Currently, I’m most proud of my paper, The Role of Sex and Compulsory Heterosexuality Within the Rural Methamphetamine Market, which was published in Crime & Delinquency. Because of the precarious nature of grad school, sometimes it’s hard to see a project from inception to completion. To my and my co-author’s knowledge, this article represents the first paper to apply a queer criminological framework to examine the experiences of primarily cisgender and heterosexual white women. In 2022, the paper earned first place in the inaugural student paper award from the Division of Queer Criminology at the American Society of Criminology.
Do you have a mentoring philosophy, and how do you envision supporting students in their academic and professional development?
I approach teaching as a way to co-construct knowledge with students, with the goal of transforming the classroom into an encouraging space and making the material relatable and accessible. My mentoring philosophy builds upon that same foundation, emphasizing a collaborative and comfortable environment that I strive to offer all my mentees. I often describe my personal experiences with employing particular methodologies, concepts, or theories in order to demystify learning and the process of conducting research. In one-on-one student conversations and larger panel events, I speak candidly and transparently about the joys and challenges of being a Black queer woman in academia. While at conferences, I carve out time to bond with my mentees and ensure that I introduce them to fellow academics who share their interests to encourage networking and professional advancement. I let them know that my door is always open.
How do you envision contributing to the growth and development of our academic community in the coming years?
Although I have only spent a few months here at John Jay, I’m currently working to develop new courses that consider the ways in which queerness intersects with the carceral system and deepen our understanding of qualitative methodologies. I also look forward to carving out pathways that combine critical analyses and intersectional education.
Outside of academia, what are some of your hobbies or interests?
Outside of academia, you can find me practicing Matsubayashi Shorin-Ryu karate and Matayoshi Kobudo (traditional weapons). Currently, I am a Shodan (1st-degree black belt) and I am preparing for my Nidan (2nd-degree black belt) test in the fall of 2024! I’ve also recently rekindled my love for video games (after a long hiatus during graduate school) and I’m back to gaming with my friends!
If you could give one piece of advice to students aspiring to excel in your field, what would it be?
Throughout my educational career, I have always carried my grandmother’s mantra and work ethic, which is the best advice I’ve ever received: Good, better, best. Never let it rest until the good is better and the better is the best. Though I’d make one small amendment — rest is important! Be sure to take breaks, but keep those intellectual fires burning.
In our Q&A series, the Office for the Advancement of Research (OAR) is excited to spotlight the 2023 Visiting Research Fellow, Dr. Suvi Rautio for the vital research she has conducted. Suvi is an anthropologist specializing in urbanization and transnationalism in rural China. Guided by family history stories, she delivered a public lecture to the John Jay College Community on April 4, 2023, titled: The Love Letters: Dreams at the Dawn of the Mao Zedong Era.
In this Q&A, Suvi shares her experience as a Visiting Fellow at John Jay College, discusses the research projects she’s worked on, and offers academic advice.
Tell us about your career path?
I started my career path in Beijing, China, working on a large range of different jobs, most of which were completely disconnected from academia and anthropology. Having grown up in Beijing, I had always been concerned in the impact that China’s breakneck development was having on the environment. I grew increasingly curious in the experience of environmental loss – in particular, how this loss alters people’s sense of belonging. This curiosity led me to work for Greenpeace where I led a research team to understand what forms of messaging and campaign strategies resonates with the broader Chinese audience. This felt exciting and meaningful, but it also did not feel like I was doing enough. I was seeking answers to bigger questions. Eventually I understood that I needed to return to academia to attend to my curiosity.
When I started a PhD in anthropology, my research in Southwest China steered me away from questions on the environment to cultural heritage. Although I was no longer focusing on environmental change, my interests in place-making and belonging have remained central to my research. To this day, my anthropological analysis pursues to find answers to how people’s connections to place and belonging change when they experience a sense of loss in one form or another.
What shaped you on your journey to follow your family’s history?
I always knew I wanted to do research on my family history. Growing up in Beijing, I wanted to understand what my family members experienced during the Maoist era — a time in which China was a very different country from the one I was familiar with. My family members did not share or openly speak about stories of the past spoken. Something inside of me has always wanted to understand and peel the layers of my family’s silences.
Maybe a part of this drive was to understand my father’s story growing up in Beijing, which I thought might help me make sense of some of the feelings that I was experiencing living in Beijing. I have always been a bit torn by the experience of feeling a deep association towards a city that I spent most of my childhood and early adulthood but where I am at the same time treated and seen as a foreigner and thus an outcast of the wider Chinese public society. Maybe if I can understand how these processes have been experienced through the lives of my family members, I can also find explanations for my own.
At the beginning, I was unaware that studying my family history was something that I could do as an anthropologist. I thought a study on my own history would appear too self-centered, and of little interest to outsiders. It was only when I was exposed to Alisse Waterston’s work (through Paul Stoller) did I learn that this is not the case. Alisse’s work has been and continues to be fundamental in shaping my journey conducting an intimate ethnography on my family.
My previous research was also fundamental in paving the path to studying my family history. Before my PhD research, I would not have been ready to pursue research on my family history. Academia is structured around critical thinking and critique, and I was scared of having to face that critique on something that is so personal. I was not ready to attend to that. Little did I know that my PhD would also become very personal, and in my dissertation I was very honest about the intimate relationships I formed with my interlocutors. This intimacy has been faced with critique. Rather than silencing those intimacies, writing about them has helped me gain a level of professionalism and courage as a writer and anthropologist. Most importantly, as an anthropologist, I have grown to understand that my research projects tends to get very personal very fast. I now understand that rather than fearing that feeling of intimacy, it is something I need to come to terms with.
Why did you want to share your story with the John Jay Community?
It was such an honour to be invited to share my work at a college-wide lecture with the John Jay Community. I wanted to take the opportunity to share my story and to challenge myself by presenting some initial material I have been collecting on my project. Sharing my story in front of my students and peers felt meaningful and I am very appreciative of the opportunity that was offered to me.
Based on the love letters you shared with us, what does love mean to you?
Love is about offering our thoughtful attention and care to someone or something. The stories that unfold in the love letters has taught me that. I think this quote, which I mention in my talk written by Armi, my grandmother, in her letter to my grandfather epitomizes how unrestrained love should be:
“Love is about whether we can understand and appreciate each other, and whether we are able to speak the same language of heart. And if we don’t understand each other in the beginning, we must be able to show that we can give the other an opportunity for mental liberty and give up our own ideas if we feel we are wronged.”
How does the love letter lecture at John Jay differ from other events you discussed?
I often present my work at conference panels and am more familiar with presenting my work within the time constraints of 10 to 20 minutes. Presenting at John Jay offered a rare opportunity to share my work beyond these time constraints. I also really appreciated having time for questions from the audience. For me, it’s these moments hearing about how my research engages with others that makes academic events, such as the one that John Jay offered me, so meaningful and worthwhile.
Overall I was really impressed by how well organized the lecture at John Jay was – from the preparation of the food and drinks, to the marketing and promotion, and all the other backend work that Remmy Bahati worked hard to put together. I was also impressed that the college had organized a professional video producer to film the lecture. Justin Thomas, the producer did a great job at this.
How did the speech make you feel?
I was so nervous about my presentation before the event. When it was over, a wave of relief swept over me when the audience showed so much enthusiasm and support towards my project. It was also moving to hear how my presentation resonated with audience members. This gave me a big boost of energy to continue moving forward with my project. Overall, the event gave me confidence to continue to seek opportunities to discuss and share my work.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Thank you John Jay for this opportunity to share my work!
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.
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.”
Dr. 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.
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
The 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.
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.
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.
Dr. 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.
There is no question that the fashion industry causes great harm to the environment. The industry’s faddish nature, combined with the overproduction of low-cost, low-quality pieces, is designed to encourage overconsumption. Production of fast fashion garments eats up precious resources, like clean water and old-growth forests, and discarded clothing can sit in landfills for hundreds of years, thanks to synthetic materials used in construction.
According to scholars Monique Sosnowski—a Ph.D. candidate in criminal justice at the CUNY Graduate Center—and John Jay Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Dr. Gohar Petrossian, pollution is not the fashion industry’s only crime. In a new article, they investigated what species were being utilized for the fashion industry, which is worth over $100 billion globally, in order to better understand the damage the industry causes to wildlife and wild places.
Sosnowski and Petrossian looked at items imported by the luxury fashion industry and seized at U.S. borders by regulatory agencies between 2003 and 2013. Their study found that, during that decade, more than 5,600 items incorporating elements illegally derived from protected animal species were seized. The most common wildlife product was reptile skin—from monitor lizards, pythons, and alligators, for the most part—and 58% of confiscated items came from wild-caught species. The authors also found that around 75% of seizures were of products coming from just six countries: Italy, France, Switzerland, Singapore, China and Hong Kong. The heavy involvement of the European countries was unexpected, according to Dr. Petrossian, because they are key players in fashion design and production but “don’t generally come up in broader discussions on wildlife trafficking.”
THE SCIENCE OF WILDLIFE CRIME
The paper applied “crime science, a body of criminological theories that focus on the crime event rather than ‘criminal dispositions,’ to understand and explain crime. The overarching assumption is that crime is an opportunity, and it is highly concentrated in time, as well as across place, among offenders, and victims,” says Dr. Petrossian. Their scientific approach enabled the authors to analyze patterns and concentrations in wildlife crime, which Sosnowski notes is among the four most profitable illegal trades.
“We are currently living in an era that has been coined the ‘sixth mass extinction,’” she says. “It is crucial that we understand the impact that humans are having on wildlife, from habitat loss to the removal of species from global environments. Fashion is one of the major industries consuming wildlife products.”
A background in wildlife conservation, including unique experiences like responding to poaching incidents in Botswana and rehabilitating trafficked cheetahs in Namibia, led Monique Sosnowski to a Ph.D. in criminology; she wanted to move beyond a more traditional conservation-informed approach to address what she’d seen in the field. Working with Dr. Petrossian on a series of studies applying crime science to wildlife crimes has given her a broader view of the effects of wildlife-related crime on global ecosystems.
CREATING SOLUTIONS, SAVING WILDLIFE
Why is it important to understand what species are most commonly used in luxury fashion products, and where they are coming from? A study like this one provides information about trends that policymakers can use to strengthen or focus enforcement and inform better understanding of the issues. Sosnowski calls this “the key to devising more effective prevention policies.”
Currently, global regulation of the trade in wildlife products, including leather, fur, and reptile skin that come from species both protected and not, is the province of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES); this treaty aims to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. But the treaty is limited in scope.
“Given the prevalence of exotic leather and fur in fashion, we believe CITES and other regulatory bodies should enact policies on its use and sustainability in order to protect wild populations, the welfare of farmed and bred populations, and the sustainability of the fashion industry,” Sosnowski says.
Consumers also have a role to play. “We are all led to believe that products found on the shelves are legal, but as this study has demonstrated, that isn’t always the case. Consumers of these products are the ones who have the power to change the behaviors of a $100 billion industry. We need to ask questions about where our products were sourced, and respond accordingly.”
Summarized from EcoHealth, Luxury Fashion Wildlife Contraband in the USA, by Monique C. Sosnowski (John Jay College, City University of New York) and Gohar A. Petrossian (John Jay College, City University of New York). Copyright 2020 EcoHealth Alliance.
Although it may seem obvious, the basic question of fairness is of huge concern to those interested in reforming our nation’s criminal justice system. This is especially important in the courtroom. “The administration of justice,” says John Jay constitutional law professor Gloria Browne-Marshall, “is supposed to be done as equally under the law as possible.” That’s the concept of due process.
But the system doesn’t always work fairly. “Mass incarceration … is unfortunately disproportionately shouldered by people of color,” said Browne-Marshall. So how do we change things to ensure equitable outcomes?
Behind the scenes, a host of scholars at John Jay College are leading the charge to develop findings, share knowledge, and train officers of the court to promote courtroom practices that are more impartial and lead to real justice. Read on to be introduced to these scholars, or read the full feature article on pages 16-17 of this year’s Impact research magazine.
Taking Better Testimony
Young or old, witnesses can be unreliable. “The most important finding is that memory is malleable and reconstructive, rather than an exact replica of any given event,” said Deryn Strange, a professor of psychology. Adult memories, especially when recounting traumatic experiences, can change over time and with the introduction of new information. Memories may incorporate intrusive thoughts, or even warp to include what the individual wishes she did differently.
Strange, who not only does research on memory but also educates courtroom officials, believes that whenever someone’s memory is on trial, judges, juries and lawyers all need to understand the power and limitations of human memory. Otherwise, decisions of guilt or innocence may very well be incorrect and unjust.
Kelly McWilliams, an assistant professor in psychology, focuses her research on children in the witness box, specifically how they use and understand language, and experience memory. Children’s memories are more limited than adults’, and they are susceptible to the introduction of false memories through questioning. Gaining helpful testimony from young witnesses depends more on the questions asked than on their abilities.
McWilliams’s research builds on recommendations from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development — like asking open-ended questions, using general prompts, and more. McWilliams tests new modes of questioning to gather details children might not share in response to an open-ended question, which may be necessary for charging decisions or establishing credibility. “These are practices that take into account what kids are capable of doing and what we should and shouldn’t be asking them to do as witnesses,” she says.
Understanding the Science
Courtroom participants — attorneys, judges, and jurors alike — can often use help determining which pieces of scientific evidence are credible. Margaret Bull Kovera, a social psychologist by training, has researched this issue for two decades.
Evidence like repressed memories and bite analysis, and even fingerprint evidence, lack a solid basis in science. However, they often make their way into evidence, accompanied by expert witnesses, and parties to a trial may not know enough to challenge them. As a result, “they make decisions that are really not borne out by the evidence, if one were evaluating it properly,” says Kovera.
Kovera’s research is working toward a set of safeguards that contribute to better decision-making. The most promising method is simply to highlight flaws in the evidence during cross examination — something that attorneys can be trained to do — or opposing experts can help provide context. In the end, procedure that relies on solid science helps result in fairer justice.
Open to Interpretation
The quest for fairness doesn’t end at conviction. Post-incarceration, language access is an important part of accessing necessary services and treatment in prison. According to Aída Martínez-Gómez, an associate professor of legal translation and interpreting, incarcerated people who don’t speak the official language of the institution where they are being held face a number of roadblocks. It’s harder for incarcerated people to navigate forms, requests, and services without translated materials. But she says there are promising solutions.
Martínez-Gómez advocates most strongly for nonprofessional interpreting services — or services provided by incarcerated peers. In one example from her work, the practice “not only contributed to overcoming the language barrier in the prison, but also to specific rehabilitation goals and potential job opportunities” once the individual’s sentence ended.
In the end, creating a fairer system means using empirical evidence to apply justice accurately and equally in the courtroom and beyond, and to avoid administering justice in arbitrary, capricious, or discriminatory ways. Though these studies can’t solve every inequality, small changes in process and better education of the parties involved can move the needle on basic fairness.
For the full feature, please visit the John Jay Faculty and Staff Research page to read the whole magazine in PDF form!