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Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice

NSF REU Site: Disparities in the Criminal Justice System


The Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) in the study of Disparities in the Criminal Justice System (DCJS) is a 10-week summer program that engages 9 selected undergraduate students with faculty and graduate students from the department  in research addressing the role of race/ethncity, class, and gender in explaining criminal behavior and understanding criminal justice practices. The DCJS-REU site is funded by the National Science Foundation with a goal of advancing undergraduate student interest in research (Award #: 1851955). The program aims to introduce students to the prospect of graduate school and foster evidence-based practices among the next generation of academics, lawyers, policymakers, and practitioners within criminal justice.

Summer 2020 Update: After much consultation with NSF (the funding source for the REU) and other colleagues hosting REUs this summer, we have decided to cancel this summer's REU program. We received so many great applications and were very much looking forward to the program, so trust us when we say that we share in your disappointment. It was an incredibly difficult decision, but given the uncertainties surrounding Covid-19, especially with moving forward on some of the research projects and scheduling of activities, we have decided it is in the best interest of the program to cancel this year. We plan on moving forward with the program next summer, so for those still eligible, we hope that you will consider our program again in your plans for the summer of 2021.

The main objectives of the DCJS-REU site are to provide program participants with opportunities to ask compelling research questions and recognize how studies can inform our understanding of crime and criminal justice polices. We seek to achieve this objective by

  • Exposing students to the research process through mentoring from faculty and graduate students
  • Providing first-hand experiences in conducting research
  • Offering students opportunities to learn how to disseminate research findings, including involvement in an undergraduate research symposium and work on a publishable paper
  • Enhancing learning and skill development through discipline-specific training, university workshops, and interactions with criminal justice professionals
  • Focusing on participation from underrepresented students, including racial/ethnic minorities, women, and first-generation college students
  • Preparing students to apply and attend graduate programs or work in the field of criminology/criminal justice or related fields

Those selected for the program will serve as junior researchers on one of three research teams. They will also participate in enrichment activities and workshops to supplement the research experience, including opportunities to interact with criminal justice professionals and researchers, as well as GRE preparation. Students will engage in several social and cultural activities (e.g., lunches hosted by the department, recreational trips, concluding ceremony).

Each student will receive a stipend of $500 per week (for at total of $5,000) plus money for travel ($500) and meals ($1,000). We will also provide on-campus housing for the duration of the program.

There are a total of three research teams, with 3 students selected to serve on each team.

Disparities in Neighborhood Level Social Altruism

Existing research indicates that neighborhoods within a single city possess varying structural characteristics, including poverty, family composition, racial/ethnic composition, and population in- and out-migrations. These structural factors can influence neighborhood dynamics, such as social cohesion, trust, altruism, and cynicism, which in turn, can impact crime. This project will focus on neighborhood-level altruism by using a lost letter experiment (Sampson, 2012). Students will drop stamped letters within neighborhoods to assess the rate of return, or the rate at which individuals within the neighborhoods practice altruism by putting the lost letters in the mail. Students will also travel to, observe, and photograph conditions in each of the city's neighborhoods as a means of characterizing physical and social features within each neighborhood. Ultimately, students will determine whether racial/ethnic neighborhood disparities and economic disparities are correlated with letter return rates, factors which are thought to be related to crime.

The faculty mentor for this project is Dr. Robert Brame.

Detecting Disparities in Case Processing: A Qualitative Study

Much of the existing court research suggests that defendants' sentences can depend partly on extralegal factors, such as race, ethnicity, sex, and even physical appearance. While we know many of these factors are related to sentences, knowledge about how these factors affect other phases of the case process are less clear. This project will focus on exploring disparities in highly discretionary phases of cases processing, including plea hearings, bond motions, and violation of probation hearings, through the use of field work and observation within the Richland County Judicial Center. Students will conduct regular court observations and then use the collected data to identify themes and patterns regarding the relationship between extralegal characteristics and case outcomes at each of these phases.

The faculty mentor for this project is Dr. Christi Metcalfe.

The Role of Race and Drugs among a Sample of Incarcerated Mothers

The dramatic increase in the use of prisons as a sanctioning tool has severely impacted women. In 2008, the incarceration rate for men was about eight times higher than their rate in the 1970s, whereas the incarceration rate for women was about 20 times higher over the same period (Belknap, 2010). U.S. drug policies are credited with impacting these imprisonment trends, with Black women disproportionately affected by these increases in imprisonment for drug offenses. This project will explore how race and drugs shape the experiences of incarcerated mothers before they come to prison and while serving their sentences. Students will analyze previously collected interview data from incarcerated mothers. Students will identify a set of research questions to explore within the topic area and then proceed to read, code, and document analyses and findings to make sense of the interview data.

The faculty mentor for this project is Dr. Barbara Koons-Witt.

Prospective sophomores and juniors from around the U.S. are encouraged to apply. We are particularly committed to expanding the participation of groups underrepresented within criminology and criminal justice graduate programs, including racial/ethnic minorities, women, and first-generation college students.

Applicants must be

  • Undergraduate students in good standing
  • Enrolled as undergraduate students at their home institution in the spring and fall of 2020 (i.e., students graduating before December 2020 are not eligible)
  • U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, or permanent residents of the United States
  • Willing to relocate to Columbia, South Carolina for the full 10 weeks

Student participants will be required to fully participate in all aspects and activities of the program.

In order to apply,

  • Complete and submit the application by March 1, 2020 (the application for this year has closed).
  • Notify two people of your choosing to write letters of recommendation (you will be asked to provide their names and emails in the application and separate emails will be sent directly to them with a form to upload their letters).

After the selection committee reviews the applications, finalists will be contacted for an in-person or phone interview.

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