Work in Progress: An Interview with Sandra Susan Smith

July 31, 2020

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the research of our current and former visiting scholars.

RSF is pleased to relaunch its Work in Progress series, which highlights the research of scholars affiliated with the foundation. The first interview in the series features Sandra Susan Smith, who was recently appointed as the Daniel & Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice, Director of the Program on Criminal Justice at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She was formerly Professor and Chair of the Sociology department at the University of California, Berkeley.

Smith has been an RSF scholar and grantee. She was a visiting scholar at the foundation during the 2002-2003 academic year. She is the author of the RSF book, Lone Pursuit: Distrust and Defensive Individualism for the Black Poor (2010). RSF supported Smith’s research project on the formerly incarcerated people’s experiences with “ban-the-box” policies that prevent restrict employers’ inquiries about job candidates’ criminal records. She co-edited, with Jonathan Simon (University of California, Berkeley), the March 2020 issue of RSF, The Criminal Justice System as a Labor Market Institution. Smith’s current book project, Cultural Logics of Job-Matching Assistance, is currently under review. She regularly writes in the mainstream press about criminal justice reform and race. Her recent op-ed about the significance and long-term impact of current protests against racism and police brutality appeared in The Guardian.

In this interview, Smith discusses the RSF journal issue that she co-edited, her thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the criminal justice system and the potential impact of recent anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests, how her work has evolved since her first RSF book, her current research projects, and what she’s reading.

What are the most compelling highlights of the recent RSF journal issue that you co-edited on The Criminal Justice System as a Labor Market Institution?

Jonathan and I sought to produce an issue with a diverse set of papers that effectively addressed long-standing questions or raised pressing issues that few had considered before on how criminal justice contact, or the very threat of punishment, shaped individuals’ labor market outcomes. I believe the issue does just that; it is rich with compelling insights. Because space is undoubtedly limited, however, I will only mention a few, but for a sense of the diversity of insights offered, readers should dive into the whole issue when they get a chance:

●      We learn from Brian Sykes and Amy Kate Bailey that once the military began excluding individuals who had criminal convictions and those without a high school diploma from service membership, they essentially closed an important door to labor market stability and upward mobility for young men, especially lesser-educated black men, during a time when other such avenues (manufacturing jobs) were in serious decline. 

●      Noah Zatz and Michael Stoll’s paper reminds us that criminal justice contact doesn’t just create barriers to employment; it can also lead to the (forced) extraction of labor from those most vulnerable to carceral punishment.

●      From Michele Cadigan and Gabriela Kirk’s terrific qualitative study we learn that in their efforts to collect fines and fees from the justice-involved, courts often create a number of hurdles, or procedural hassles, that ironically make it difficult and, in some cases, impossible for justice-involved individuals to find work and to keep it.

●      Cody Warner, Joshua Kaiser, and Jason Houle’s outstanding paper is one of the first studies of its kind to provide strong evidence that hidden sentences—the state-imposed, invisible penalties that justice-involved individuals face above and beyond incarceration and/or probation—contribute to the difficulties that justice-involved individuals have getting a job, in the process, magnifying racial disparities.

●      Many believe that successful re-entry hinges on finding a job, any job, that work of any kind will invite desistance. Joe LaBriola’s clever study shows that when it comes to avoiding future arrests and prison spells, what matters for the formerly incarcerated is having high quality employment; any old job just won’t do.

Please share your thoughts about the potential for lasting reforms to the criminal justice system and dismantling structural racism that may emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

I am far less sanguine than others about the effect that the pandemic and the most recent protests against police brutality will have on efforts to dismantle systemic racism in criminal justice or beyond. We have known since the beginning of the pandemic that jails, prisons, and detention centers would be hit hard unless dramatic steps were taken. Criminal justice reform activists, advocates, and academics have for months called on large scale release of incarcerated individuals in response, and for good reason. Only by releasing them on a massive scale would we have been able to halt the spread. Still, on this front thus far state and federal leaders have done little.

I am also less sanguine than most about the potential for real change resulting from anti-police brutality protests. Although many feel hope because of the scale of protests across the country and even the world, how many weeks (or months) protests have gone on, and the multi-racial composition of the protesters, I have to admit to having doubts about how much these efforts will yield. As I’ve written elsewhere, despite some differences, we have been here before. It is not yet clear to me how this moment will produce more than what we have seen before, criminal justice reforms that by and large nibble around the edges of the problem rooted in systemic racism without doing much to attack those very roots. I also see the criminal justice system as just one part of a larger apparatus that maintains racial hierarchies through various types of oppression and exploitation. The police brutality that we see is just the tip of a very large and imposing iceberg of systemic inequities to which we have paid relatively little collective attention. Until we do, the patterns that we have seen, and that Black, Latino, and Indigeneous people have complained about for generations, will continue.

Can you discuss how your research has evolved since your first RSF book, Lone Pursuit: Distrust and Defensive Individualism among the Black Poor, was published. Are there any research questions that you investigated at the beginning of your career that continue to be resonant?

Since Lone Pursuit, I have continued my quest to better understand the conditions that facilitate social capital mobilization. Much of this work has been focused on better understanding the meanings that individuals and communities attribute to job seekers’ efforts to find work, or lack thereof, as well as different aspects of the job-matching process and their roles in it. I’ve also been attentive to how structural contexts come to shape the cultural resources that individuals bring to bear in ways that produce very different cultural logics across groups distinguished by ethnoracial background and class. My next book, The Cultural Logics of Job-Matching Assistance, will take on these questions. I have also been thinking a great deal about identity processes as a set of conditions that might also facilitate social capital mobilization, and with the help of two outstanding graduate students in Berkeley Sociology — Jasmine Sanders and Nikki Lee — I hope to finally real make progress on this front.

What research projects are you currently working on?

I have two major projects in the works. Both solidify my interest in and commitment to research on punishment and inequality. First, I am interested in understanding what it is about spending any more than one-two days in pretrial detention awaiting case adjudication that significantly increases the likelihood that low-risk individuals with low-level offenses will have future criminal justice involvement. The Difference a Day Makes (tentative title) will be my attempt to explain what happens in the context of detention that fundamentally alters individuals’ criminal justice trajectories. With the assistance of two extraordinary Berkeley Sociology graduate students — Jackie Lepe and Isaac Dalke — data collection and cleaning are complete, and data coding just a couple months from completion. This project was generously funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

My second project investigates to what extent and how Ban-the-Box (BtB) policies affect patterns of job search among men and women with criminal records. To date, no study has examined this relationship. Chris Herring, a recent Berkeley Sociology PhD, current Harvard Inequality Postdoc, and future assistant professor at UCLA, has been a major resource for me in terms of data collection and analysis; he’s also been an incredible interlocutor. For this project, I have also received financial support from Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and the Russell Sage Foundation.

What are you reading now that’s informing the direction of your work?

During times like these, I need the wisdom, courage, and deep insights that only James Baldwin can provide. His essays feed my mind and my soul both as a black woman, and as a scholar of race and inequality in the U.S. But this moment also calls for academics to think about how the institutions that we are embedded in rely on belief systems and engage in practices that make durable racial inequalities. I am a sociologist, and so I am revisiting Joyce Ladner’s The Death of White Sociology, which was itself born from a time, 50 years ago, with many similarities to today (sadly). I wonder just how far sociology has come as a discipline and where we need to go from here. In terms of methods, I also plan to revisit Tukufu Zuberi’s White Logic, White Methods, since not even the scientific method is immune to the biases that people carry. What more needs to be done on this front? Finally, Alice O’Connor’s Poverty Knowledge is an exceptional and potent reminder about the central role that liberals and some left-leaning research institutions have played in defining research agendas and pushing policies that have contributed to the stigmatization of the poor, especially poor people of color. Many of these same institutions have begun to position themselves as key players in the effort to better understand today’s problems and to offer solutions. I want to be mindful of this history in the hopes that I don’t contribute to repeating it.


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