21st Century Justice: The Struggle to Decarcerate in the States

Awarded Scholars:
Heather Schoenfeld, Boston University
Michael Campbell, University of Denver
Project Date:
Feb 2021
Award Amount:
$35,000

Black incarceration rates in the U.S. are five times those of whites, disproportionately affecting Black families and communities. Sociologist Heather Schoenfeld and criminologist Michael Campbell seek to understand why some state criminal justice reform efforts succeed, who gets included and excluded in the reform process, and why lawmakers support only certain policy solutions. With previous funding from the National Science Foundation, they have created a qualitative dataset of thousands of newspaper articles, state legislative bills and laws, and other official records, and they have interviewed 52 people involved in the policy process (state legislators, law enforcement lobbyists, prisoner rights lawyers) in five states: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, and Florida. The investigators will draft analytic memos for each state initiative then draft matched state-pair comparison memos on political, social, or other factors that emerge from single state analysis. Finally, they will use the memos to create a matrix for each state pair that looks for the presence or absence of emergent and hypothesized factors to answer these questions: 1) why, given a shared national context, have some states enacted legislation to reduce incarceration while others have not? 2) since states’ geographic, economic and political institutions are stable, why does reformers’ ability to pass decarcerative measures change over time? 3) what influences the types of reforms proposed and passed?

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