U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine meeting with local officials to discuss criminal justice reform. Photo by Senator Tim Kaine, Flickr CC

According to a new report, rates of felony conviction are on the rise in the United States. In response, policy influencers in many states are seeking strategies to combat this increase. However, solutions often unveil further challenges. A recent article from PBS discusses a new study on the rise of felony punishments on a state-by-state basis, as well as the barriers to policy reform.

From 1980 to 2010, felony convictions increased in every state. Sociologist Michelle Phelps discusses the context behind these high rates: 

“When crime rates rose in the 1980s and early 1990s, local and state leaders hired more police and they made more arrests, including felony arrests… In addition, many states elevated nonviolent crimes like drug possession to felony status, and many district attorneys adopted a get-tough strategy, seeking felony charges whenever possible. Police focused drug enforcement on high-crime neighborhoods, which were often predominantly African-American…As a result, felony convictions rose much faster among blacks than among whites.”

In an effort to combat high incarceration rates, states like Georgia have tried replacing prison sentences with probation. But as Phelps points out, probation can be just as damaging as serving a prison term since, in addition to having a criminal record, individuals on probation must also abide by additional rules and requirements:

“Though it’s frequently dismissed as a slap on the wrist, probation can entail onerous requirements…For instance, probation can require a job and good housing as a condition for staying out of prison, but the felony conviction itself can make it hard or impossible to get that job.”

In sum, policymakers searching for new ways to bring felony numbers down must consider unintended consequences of reforms — especially when reforms have the potential to reinforce or worsen deeply structural racial inequalities.

Photo by Kyle Pearce, Flickr CC

In the 1950s and 60s, middle-class White families moved from cities across the United States into suburbs. Today, we see movement in the opposite direction. Middle-class families are moving to previously neglected inner-city neighborhoods, a process known as gentrification.  While gentrification provides middle and upper-class families with more urban living options, previous residents in those neighborhoods are often forced to move out when they can no longer afford the rising cost of living. In a recent NPR article, sociologist John Schlichtman discusses negative consequences of gentrification. Schlichtman explains, 

“The reason gentrification has a bad rap is due to the inequity between race and housing. Race is, at its heart, a class issue…The devaluing of lower-class neighborhoods, usually residents of color, is the result of a history of unjust policies, including government defunding and redlining.”

According to Schlichtman, those who move into gentrifying neighborhoods may feel guilty because they benefit from “an unjust gap.” At an individual level, Schlichtman suggests investing in businesses that already exist in the community, instead of new ones. But to really create social change, action must go beyond the individual:

“We need to put pressure on our city governments as a community to not put profit and investment as the number one priority. It can be balanced with other priorities of community.”

In short, gentrification can reinforce racial and class inequalities in the United States. And while gentrification is not only about individual choices, individuals — especially those moving into gentrifying neighborhoods — can take steps to counter its negative effects.

Flowers and Candles for Kiante Tay Campbell. Photo by George Kelly, Flickr CC

Despite the current administration’s affirmations of high crime rates and push for more tough on crime policies, their approach does not align with the reality of crime in the United States, where violent crime fell substantially over the past 25 years. In a recent article in The New York Times, sociologist Patrick Sharkey discusses his research on both the causes and social benefits of the violent crime drop.

Reductions in crime improved the overall climate in major cities, but especially improved social conditions in disadvantaged communities of color. Declines in homicide led to increased life expectancy for young Black males. Sharkey’s research also demonstrates that declines in homicide helped to narrow the achievement gap between Black and White children and decreased concentrations of poverty in many cities. According to Sharkey, “living in poverty used to mean living with the constant threat of violence. In most of the country, that is no longer true.”

Undervalued forms of violence prevention —  non-profit organizations in particular — could help keep levels of violent crime low. Sharkey argues that a method that focuses on safety and creating community, rather than tough policing and prosecution, is the next step to a further reduction in violent crimes:

“These findings suggest a new model for combating urban violence. While police departments remain crucial to keeping city streets safe, community organizations may have the greatest capacity to play a larger role in confronting violence. Working directly with law enforcement and residents, these organizations are central to the next stage in the effort to make our cities even safer.”

Photo by Yandle, Flickr CC

Around this time of year — when many people are focusing on their romantic partners — it’s easy to forget how important our friendships are. In fact, spending more time with friends may actually improve romantic relationships. In a recent article in The New York Times, Stephanie Coontz reviews social science research demonstrating that a flourishing social life can lead to a better marriage. Coontz writes,

“Socializing with friends and family and participating in clubs, political organizations, teams, unions and churches are essential components of what sociologists call social integration. And health researchers report that maintaining high levels of social integration provides as much protection against early mortality as quitting smoking.”

There are multiple ways social integration can be beneficial. For example, sociologist Kristi Williams suggests that difficulties of those divorced and widowed may be based in their lack of self-reliance skills and smaller social networks, rather than the end of their marriages. Additionally, one experiment showed that couples who went on double dates reported more passionate feelings toward their partners than those who went on a date only as a couple. So, when you’re planning your next date night, consider inviting your friends.

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In the decades since the Holocaust, the international community created mechanisms like the 1951 Genocide Convention in order to ensure that the world would “never again” experience such tragedy. Even so, genocide and mass violence continue to occur across the world. Recent AP reports provide even more evidence of a genocide in Myanmar, yet military response and global governance are again lacking. In a recent article in The Washington Post, Aliza Luft addresses these failings and suggests that economic tactics may succeed where others have failed.

Many factors can influence violent behavior, like prejudice and propaganda, but for many who commit violence, economic considerations are essential. For example, some governments use poverty to motivate civilians to engage in violence, offering resources in exchange for participation. According to Luft:

“Thus, one strategy for intervention is to even the economic playing field: to lower the capital of the génocidaires while increasing that of their potential recruits. Responses can include targeted financial measures such as asset freezes and economic divestment from major firms that help fund genocidal governments. Additionally, non-governmental relief efforts might focus not only on food, medicine, and housing for the displaced, but also on creating economic opportunities to reduce the potential for recruitment by genocidal authorities.”

Economic strategies can take many forms, including organizations that guide companies towards pro-human rights policy, as well as online campaigns that have dissuaded companies from working with genocidal regimes. Luft argues that anyone can aid in genocide prevention through personal spending choices, outreach, and activism. She suggests civilians use financial strategies that may influence politics and policy:

“To deepen the link between investment or operations abroad and commitments to human rights, civilians can emply boycotts and social media campaigns to pressure these companies over their complicity in genocide. Research has shown that economic and reputational concerns can motivate a company to change its policies. It is time to mobilize on behalf of the Rohingya, and to target businesses whose taxes and revenue fund violence.”

Photo by Gareth Simpson, Flickr CC

With the highest incarceration rate in the world, many policymakers in the United States are looking to reform the criminal justice system. Some have turned to fines as an alternative to jail or prison. Unfortunately, fines may not be the best solution, according to sociologist Alexes Harris

In a recent New York Times article, Harris argues that a fine-based system places a huge financial burden — the responsibility of funding the entire criminal justice system — directly on those who are often least able to pay. Harris writes,

These people are paying for the system of justice from which we all benefit, but they cannot afford to do so. They are often poor, unemployed and of color. In research on monetary sanctions in nine states, my research team and I found that many people have trouble navigating the legal process associated with fines and fees, like finding out how much money they owe and meeting minimum payment requirements. Of the 380 people we interviewed, over half received public assistance and a vast majority had problems paying their legal debt.

Consequences for not paying can be severe. Not only do delays in payment often result in late fees or interest charges, warrants are sometimes issued for those who fail to pay, and they may end up incarcerated anyway. However, Harris explains that there are other alternatives to incarceration besides fines:

“They should instead search for ways to reduce criminal justice budgets by prioritizing preventive measures proved to decrease recidivism and improve public safety such as free drug and alcohol treatment programs, low-cost housing, restorative justice and job training. To start, lower courts should rely on day fines, where monetary sanctions are determined based on a person’s daily wage and the seriousness of the offense. The sanction is proportionate to a person’s ability to pay and the degree of harm inflicted.”

Photo by Maryland GovPics, Flickr CC

In the wake of tragically-familiar mass shootings, the media and concerned citizens understandably look to a perpetrator’s background to understand why they would carry out a shooting and whether it could have been prevented. Many of these investigations identify mental illness as blameworthy.

There’s a problem with this routine, however. It assumes that mental illness is the root cause of violent acts. New research from Miranda Lynne Baumann and Brent Teasdale shows this assumption is not valid. Writing in The Conversation, Baumann and Teasdale detail their findings from a project that followed people who received treatment for mental illnesses and compared them to a demographically-similar group of people who did not. Results demonstrated that respondents with mental illness did not pose a significant threat to their communities. In fact, the authors write that:

“People with serious mental illness who have access to firearms are no more likely to be violent than people living in the same neighborhoods who do not have mental illnesses…the reality of firearm-related risk among individuals with mental illness lies not in the potential for harm to others, but in the risk of harming oneself.”

In other words, the only significant difference between these groups was the suicide rate, not rates of violence against others. These trends suggest that we should also pay attention to other factors, such as access to firearms, emergency response practices, and cultural assumptions about violence and masculinity, in our attempts to limit the impact of mass violence, rather than singularly focusing on mental illness.

Photo by Shawn Henning, Flickr CC

I’m sure few people were surprised by The Washington Post‘s recent headline, Women Rate the Strongest Men as the Most Attractive, Study Finds.” However, not everyone agrees on how to interpret these findings. While the authors of the study believe participants rated strong men as most attractive for evolutionary reasons, sociologist Lisa Wade argues we should look to culture for the answer.

“We value tall, lean men with strong upper bodies in American society,” she said. “We’re too quick to assume that it requires an evolutionary explanation…We know what kind of bodies are valorized and idealized. It tends to be the bodies that are the most difficult to obtain.”

Wade was not the only academic to express skepticism of the study’s causal claims. Holly Dunsworth, an anthropologist, argued that the methodology of the study was unable to support the author’s evolutionary explanation. “They made no link between any of those responses of those women to any sort of ancient, deep-seated evolutionary traits,” she said. Wade agreed, noting that much of this type of research has similar methodological problems. 

Photo by Pierre-Selim, Flickr CC

The #MeToo movement and high-profile sexual harassment and assault cases recently brought greater media attention to sexual violence. With this increased attention, however, comes new questions regarding the language used to talk about and write about various forms of sexual violence. This is not only a question of what specific words to use, but also how much detail to give about the act of violence or the victims’ experiences. Using vague or all-encompassing terms like “sexual violence” can flatten and sanitize victims’ experiences. However, when descriptions of sexual violence are not sanitized, they tend to be sensationalized.

In a recent Vox article on the complicated language of sexual violence, sociologist Heather Hlavka argues that sensationalizing violence can be a serious problem.

“Are we, as a culture, so titillated by the extremities of violence — the types, the details, the comportments — that we would like to ingest each sensationalized bit of people’s experiences?” asks Hlavka. “What is the ultimate goal? To better understand? To discredit the experience or mitigate the offense because it fell low on a range of horrors? To discredit the victim by dissecting her actions, her composure, her silence, or her resolve?”

People who experience sexual violence also struggle with language. According to Hlavka, many do not recognize or name their experiences as such, but this does not mean the problem is a lack of words to use to describe sexual violence. Instead, she argues that a broader culture of sexism has the power to reshape the meaning behind such terms, causing them to lose their power. 

Girls do not name their experiences as rape or sexual assault, despite very clearly fitting within established legal categories. Boys, too, struggle to understand, define, and identify as a victim of sexual violence but for different reasons. I would argue that we do not lack a language of sexual violence and harassment…It’s there — it’s a feminist language of power and control and abuse and consent — we just aren’t integrating it in truly meaningful ways, and thus our experiences will not neatly map onto law.”

Photo by Dean Hochman, Flickr CC

Originally posted Jan. 26, 2017

Prospective college students consider a wide variety of factors when deciding on a university. While academics and career opportunities are often high on the list, colleges known as top party schools have a special appeal. Everyone loves a good time, but as Occidental College sociologist Lisa Wade describes in her new book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, this idea of college as “fun” is a fairly recent trend some troubling consequences.

In a feature with Time Magazine, Dr. Wade explains how American universities changed from predominantly strict, formal institutions to environments known for casual hookups and wild parties. Whereas in colonial America, colleges were highly regulated places, as the student body underwent a shift, so did campus culture. Wade explains,

“They [colonial college students] were generally obedient, but as the eighteenth century came to a close, colleges were increasingly filled with wealthy sons of elite families. These young men weren’t as interested in higher education as they were in a diploma that would ratify their families’ hoarding of wealth and power. Predictably, they had a much lower tolerance for submission.”

This rebellious attitude led to widespread expulsions across many elite universities, as well as the early foundations of Greek life. Fraternities became hubs for parties, alcohol, and casual sex, a legacy that still holds strong on many college campuses across the United States. And while the party scene can be tempting for many, American Hookup highlights how this emphasis on noncommittal and unemotional sex also sets the stage for widespread rape and sexual assault.

“Thanks to the last few hundred years, most colleges now offer a very specific kind of nightlife, controlled in part by the same set of privileged students that brought partying to higher education in the first place, and designed to promote, as much as possible, the ‘big four-year org’ that students both desire and dread.”