The Community as the Criminal Justice Laboratory

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Tag Cloud of Community Engagement Research.  Source:
Community Engagement Research. Source: “The moral framework of community engagement research” by Jeff Trahair, Senior Lecturer, University of Adelaide.

“The point is to change the world, not only study it” (Maguire, 2001).

While community engaged teaching (e.g. service learning courses) has gained popularity, the same enthusiasm for its scholarship-based counterpart seems to be lacking. This blog post is inspired by my struggle to find the appropriate vehicle for communicating the importance community engaged research, especially in the field of criminal justice (and my disdain for those who do not see its relevance). Unfortunately, I have experienced the imbalance of teaching, scholarship and service where service is frowned upon or dismissed and “publication for publication sake” is glorified. The service component of our academic duties can and should lead to better learning opportunities for students as well as research prospects for faculty and real world applicability. Is it not our responsibility to “move beyond the journal article” (see Cahill & Torre, 2007) and also use our skills to promote social change?

One way to frame this research approach is in terms of Participatory Action Research (PAR). PAR is “the practice of engaging those whose lives are impacted by the research directly into the research design, implementation, analysis and dissemination of findings” (Sullivan, Bhuyah, Senturia, & Shiu-Thornton, 2005, p. 978). In contrast to the positivist assumptions of maintaining value-free objectivity and distance from those under study (Small, 1995), the main goal of PAR is the result of some meaningful action or social change (Small & Utall, 2005). To determine if you are doing research under this framework, consider the following: 1) is it an iterative process for conducting research that includes reflection and action; 2) do you have community members and stakeholders involved with the research process; and 3) will you use findings to promote positive community change (Obinna, 2005).

Community Engaged Scholarship (after Bringle, Games, and Malloy, 1999). Source: “Community Engaged Learning” The Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness. Venn diagram of the intersections of Community, Research, Service, and Teaching
Community Engaged Scholarship (after Bringle, Games, and Malloy, 1999). Source: “Community Engaged Learning” The Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness.

Here is how it can and does work. My latest community engaged research stems from volunteer service on a statewide committee tasked with addressing disproportionate minority contact (DMC) in the juvenile justice system. Through this service, I have close contact with many practitioners and members of the community currently working in trenches of a very fragmented justice process for our state’s youth. Through relationship building, researchers should use community members’ ability to help navigate the political environment and the undercurrents impacting their community’s social issues. While the service to the DMC committee was never intended to be self-serving, relationships were naturally built. Subsequently, my DMC work led me to a broader interest in the “school to prison pipeline.”

The existence of racial disparities in the juvenile justice system is no secret. Empirical literature abounds that has studied the juvenile justice data and revealed disparities at every critical decision point in the system. Yet, in many communities, including my own, the entry into the juvenile justice process – the referral stage – is often equated with arrests. So I could look at arrest data and prove what we already know or I could utilize the existing referral data to see where the biggest social impact could occur. Literature reveals that many jurisdictions have already attempted to work with local law enforcement to address their interactions with youth with marginal success. Why then should I only crunch numbers instead of addressing the increasing number of court referrals deriving from the school discipline strategies that are also permeated with racial inequities?

Here is an illustration of how academics move from merely analyzing data to using it to actually lead to community and organizational change. In March 2014, I was asked to serve as an advisory member to the local school district’s Code of Conduct Review Committee, which was assembled after a racial equity scorecard revealed staggering disparities in school discipline and achievement in the district. In an advising capacity, I actually ended up rewriting their existing blurb on Restorative Practices and transforming it into an actual policy that now appears as an option for correctional strategies for school misbehavior in the Code. Cahill and Torre (2007) stated:

The challenge for PAR researchers who are serious about social change is to think through how to effectively provoke action by research that engages, that reframes social issues theoretically, that nudges those in power, that feeds organizing campaigns, and that motivates audiences to change both the way they think and how they act in the world.

For months, I thought about how this school discipline policy change could actually lead to a true impact. After gaining access to their school suspension data, I am now working with the school district to develop, implement, and evaluate restorative circles in two alternative schools with 4th to 12th grade students. A Ph.D. candidate will assist me and use the project as the basis of a policy-driven, program evaluation dissertation. In addition, I have hopes of turning this work into a service learning course in the near future. Academics can do so much more than publish reports and analyze data. We can also be a part of social change in our local communities while teaching future academics and practitioners to do the same.

Cherie Dawson-Edwards, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Justice Administration
University of Louisville

Cahill, Caitlin, and Maria Torre. “Beyond the Journal Article: Representations, Audience, and the Presentation of Participatory Action Research.” In Connecting People, Participation and Place: Participatory Action Research Approaches and Methods, edited by Sara Kindon, Rachel Pain, and Mike Kesby, 196–206. London: Routledge.

Cameron, J. (2007). Linking participatory research to action.In S. Kindon, R. Pain, & Kesby, M. (2007). Participatory Action Research Approaches and Methods: Connecting People, Participation and Place. Routledge studies in human geography, 22. London: Routledge.

Greenwood, D. J., Foote Whyte, W., & Harkavy, I. (1993). Participatory action research as a process and as a goal. Human Relations, 46(2): 175-192.

Obinna, J. (2005). Participatory Approaches to Research: Understanding Sexual Violence in the Deaf Community. Council on Crime and Justice.

Small, S.A., & Utall, L. (2005). Action-oriented research: Strategies for engaged scholarship. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 936-948.

Sullivan, M., Bhuyah, R., Senturia, K., & Shiu-Thornton, S. (2005). Participatory Action Research in Practice: A case study in addressing domestic violence in nine cultural communities. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20(8), 977-995.

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