Crime + Punishment: Dr. Amanda Geller

<i>Crime + Punishment</i>: Dr. Amanda Geller

On Thursday, January 31st, the Institute of Human Development and Social Changethe Department of Sociology, and NYU Strategies to Reduce Inequality at the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research hosted a free community screening and discussion of the award-winning documentary, Crime + Punishment. 

A panel of researchers, citizens, and advocates discussed working together to promote fair and evidence-based policing practices. Dr. Amanda Geller, Clinical Associate Professor of Sociology at NYU, studies issues surrounding youth interaction with the justice system. On the Ground recently spoke to Dr. Geller about her work and the need for data to serve agencies and researchers. This interview was edited for clarity and length.


Geller: A lot of surveys on youth exposure to the criminal justice system start with the point of arrest. Some of the work I had been doing in New York City indicated that given the extent of the Stop and Frisk program, there were a lot of young people who had extensive contact with the police that never actually lead to arrest, but the police contacts were likely to have social implications for the rest of their lives.

These contacts with police, where are they occurring? In neighborhoods? In schools?

Geller: Some of the contact is happening at school, but not all of it. My data suggest that about 4% of kids report having been stopped by the police at school, but for black boys the rate is more than twice as high. Most kids of all races reported a police officer regularly stationed at their school; I was surprised by just how pervasive and how present the police were in schools.

I work with the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study data, a population-based survey of births in large cities. It started in the late-90s largely in response to welfare reform and the public conversations about single-parent headed households and the rise of non-marital births. There was a lot of policy being set based on what people thought they knew about single-parent families and non-marital births, but at the time there was very little data.

Jumping forward 15-plus years, one of the broad takeaways from my research is the importance of putting data into our understanding of the scale of the contact that young people have with the police. I think the Fragile Families data set is the first population-based and national study that has been able to give this complete picture about contemporary urban teens.

We tend to hear about isolated cases, but when you look at population level data you see that 10% of Black boys report that they’ve been not only stopped by the police but frisked or handcuffed, often at young ages, and that this is happening on a large scale. This is something we need to be acknowledging, understanding, and responding to, not just as a series of isolated incidents, but as something that is policy driven and has potentially large social consequences.

Is there a “dream data set” that you wish you and other researchers had access to?

Geller: As a researcher, you understand that most of the data you receive from administrative sources was not intended to be used for research. It was intended for operational purposes and asks what do crime conditions look like this week or last week, rather than what do we know on a population level, or what do we know over time? There are changes to systems over time that don’t necessarily affect a police officer’s ability to use the data week by week, but for a researcher to really get a comprehensive picture becomes much harder. I have done some work that actually takes deep dive survey data and combines it with administrative data and that is an extremely powerful combination of tools.

One of my projects combined survey and administrative data. This project also looked at the Fragile Families data set, but focusing on the role of incarceration in families, and we were able to take data from a subsample of the fathers and match it to administrative records.

I had been doing that project retrospectively, taking data on contacts with the criminal justice system that went back decades and trying to match the timing to when the contact happened, and how these incidents lined up with the social outcomes that we were observing in the survey. I would love to be able to do more work like this, but prospectively rather than retrospectively.

What type of partnership or support would you need to do this type of work?

Geller: The role of research and the role of agency data in research needs to be socialized into organizations in a way that acknowledges that people who are working on creating these data sets already have very full plates. There are organizational change components that would need to be in there. How do you not only collect these data for operational purposes, make it available to and useful for researchers, while also taking the appropriate data protection precautions? It’s nontrivial, but has the potential to not only benefit the research community, but inform policy and assist the agencies.