My interested are centered on the lives and experiences of people who have been involved with or affected by the criminal legal system, including the social, political, and economic consequences of such involvement. Within this work, I examine the meaning, creation, and dissemination of criminal records in addition to the social and political implications of exclusion and stigma. 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. Below are a few of my ongoing projects.

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publicly available criminal record information disseminated by private sources is often inaccurate, incomplete, and out-of-date.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).

filing cabinet Adam Birkett

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. 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. We provide an empirical basis for adequately describing the magnitude of economic strain on people impacted by the criminal legal system who are subject to multiple streams of state-imposed debt. 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.

Photo by Alice Pasqual on Unsplash

Social and Political Attitudes and Beliefs of System-Impacted People

Efforts to restore voting rights have been met with resistance, in part because opponents (and some advocates) believe that this population is overwhelmingly left-leaning. However, these beliefs are rarely empirically based as little to no representative data on the beliefs, values, and characteristics of the disenfranchised exist. Through a series of surveys, focus groups, and interviews modeled after the General Social Survey and the American National Election Studies, I unpack the political and social views of people with felony convictions. Preliminary findings strongly suggest the assumptions applied to this group are for the most part not supported. That is, this is not a monolithic group whose worldviews are forged solely by their system experience. This project will produce the first empirically rigorous data to reveal the complexity, diversity, and—especially—the humanity of this population, fostering a more thoughtful discussion of their civic inclusion. 

College in Prison

Higher Education Access and Outcomes

College Access

This work sits at the intersection of the sociologies of punishment and higher education. I use a mixed methods approach to examine the use of criminal history information in the college admissions process. I use this context as a case to study criminal stigma and discrimination, exclusion, and the production of citizenship. Preliminary findings from this research have been cited in various reports, including by The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Brookings Institution, and The Marshall Project. 


The first article from this project, which was published in Criminology (pdf) with Chris Uggen, featured a field experiment on the college admissions process, producing the first estimates of the effect of a criminal record on college admissibility for White and Black young men. We find that applicants with felony records were rejected at three times the rate of the similar applicants without records when they were required to disclose their record.


The second paper from this project, which is currently under review, looks underneath the admissions decision to consider how discrimination and exclusion are exercised through the process itself. Applying to hundreds of colleges produced a rich source of qualitative data, which I use to uncover mechanisms of differential treatment and discrimination within the process. I find that most colleges do not outright disqualify applicants with criminal records and thus appear inclusive in their application language and formal processes. However, in practice the processes themselves are exclusionary. Faced with sizable administrative burdens and apprehensive or fastidious college officials, applicants with records--particularly those not versed in the hidden curriculum of admissions--are pushed out of the process through attrition.

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.