© 2019 Robert Stewart.

My research agenda is driven by two fundamental questions: how are lives and communities shaped by the enduring effects of criminal justice involvement, and (2) for justice-impacted students, how does higher education simultaneously marginalize and exclude while also providing possible pathways toward mobility and social membership. I join these two lines of inquiry in my dissertation work in which I use experimental and mixed methods to explore the college application process for applicants with criminal records. To my knowledge, this is the first national experiment on criminal record discrimination in college admissions (see more here). In other ongoing work, I examine the meaning, creation, and dissemination of criminal records; the financial burdens of justice involvement; and how higher education policies spread throughout the field over time. These threads together constitute a research program that uses rigorous social science methods to consider how the consequences of higher education and justice involvement reverberate throughout the course of people’s lives.

Criminal Records, Stigma, and the Life Course

Criminal Record Accuracy

A criminal record could refer to anything from court conviction records, police reports, jail mugshots, news reports, and/or a host of other information about an individual generated through interaction with the justice system. But the accuracy, completeness, and validity of a person’s criminal record is largely taken for granted. In my next major project following my dissertation work, Sarah Lageson (Rutgers) and I evaluate criminal record information from various public and private sources through a multi-state, multi-method comparative analysis of criminal record data sources. We find that permanent, publicly available criminal record information disseminated by private sources is often inaccurate, incomplete, and out-of-date. Furthermore, even minimal criminal justice contact becomes permanently and prominently--though often inaccurately--recorded online as discrediting markers that create and exacerbate existing social inequality. We are also testing new methodological schemes for analyzing the accuracy of criminal records using novel data science matching techniques. This research is funded by the National Institute of Justice New Investigator/Early Career Program in the Social and Behavioral Sciences and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and a Rutgers University Research Grant (with Lageson as co-principal investigator).

Financial Costs of Justice Involvement

Minnesota is one of eight states included in the Multi-State Study of Monetary Sanctions, led by principal investigator Alexes Harris (University of Washington), investigating systems of monetary sanctions in the United States. Monetary sanctions can include any financial obligation incurred through justice system involvement, such as court fines, fees, surcharges, confinement fees, and probation fees. Using data science techniques to clean, deduplicate, and link court administration data with other sources, I have created a dataset for multi-level statistical analysis to explore the disproportionate distribution of monetary sanctions, evaluate the “residual discrimination” that remains, and examine courtesy stigma. We are also conducting a recidivism analysis of monetary sanctions and a socio-legal examination of the development of monetary sanctions since Bearden v. Georgia (holding that debtors’ prisons were unconstitutional). Here you can find the full team reports for year 1 and year 2, and a UMN press release about our Minnesota work.

Another project, Dual Debtors: Child Support and Criminal Financial Legal Obligations, is an offshoot of the “Monetary Sanctions” project supported by a grant from the Institute for Poverty Research (as co-investigator). This multi-method project focuses on the overlap of two systems of debt: criminal monetary sanctions and child support. The project provides an empirical basis for adequately describing the magnitude of economic strain on people impacted by the justice system who are subject to multiple streams of state-imposed debt. We created a dataset composed of linked individual-level longitudinal administrative data from Minnesota’s child support and criminal justice systems. We complement these data with 30 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with dual debtors. We investigate how debt accrual and enforcement mechanisms in child support and criminal justice interact, and how these systems are navigated by “dual debtors.” Identifying how punishment overlaps and interacts with other systems will allow us to develop a more fulsome understanding of how criminal justice involvement reverberates throughout all aspects of people’s lives.

Choosing Prison Over Probation

Criminological sentencing and punishment research typically assumes that alternatives to imprisonment, such as probation, are the always preferable choice for those facing criminal sentencing. However, emerging research has demonstrated that a small group of defendants favor prison over alternative sentences. Sentencing data from Minnesota indicates that a number of individuals facing criminal sentencing requested to have their sentences executed and to be sent to prison in lieu of probation. ​With Veronica Horowitz (Buffalo), I investigate why some defendants elect to make this choice, to execute their prison sentences instead of be put on probation. We are currently analyzing data from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission and conducting interviews with defendants. Our findings call into question a taken-for-granted aspect of the era of mass probation and mass correctional control with implications for sentencing policy and justice reform efforts.

Higher Education Access and Outcomes

Horizontal Status and Criminal History Disclosure Policy Transmission

Colleges and universities do not exist in isolation but rather occupy varying, shifting positions of dominance and influence within the higher education field, which itself occupies a position in relation to other social fields. Higher education policies are thus crafted or adopted in a relational space where status and position are perpetual changing, with institutions looking to their presumed peers to maintain or improve their position while simultaneously negotiating their positions within other social fields. I use archival online records and data requests to construct a longitudinal dataset to trace the pathways and language of criminal history admissions requirement policy adoption through the higher education field from 1995 to 2015. I focus particularly on the effects of local and national events, institutional control and other characteristics, campus crime, and membership in athletic conferences and academic association to predict policy adoption through the field over time. I use this as a case to examine organizational policymaking and how academic capital is redefined within a stratified field.

College in Prison

As the mounting economic and social costs of mass incarceration have become undeniable, there has been a resurgence of national interest in the potential benefits of prison college programs. Although existing empirical evidence tends to indicate that college programs in prison are associated with, among other outcomes, decreases in recidivism, increases in employment, and higher income, most of the evidence is correlational. I am working closely with leadership at the Minnesota Department of Corrections to design a rigorous evaluation of a prison college program.