On complicated data and the microcosm of injustice that is the justice system

by James Sutton
Associate Professor of Sociology

It is crucial to underscore that the patterns that we see in the justice system are seen in all of our institutions. Hence, our institutions are mutually reinforcing (as we see with the school to prison pipeline) and ultimately reflect and maintain more deeply rooted social inequalities. Given that this is the case, changes to the system (e.g., police reforms) can help address certain challenges, but they may fall short when it comes to fixing the more deeply rooted inequalities that are intertwined within all of society’s structures.

I take steps to help students understand what the data show, reinforcing an approach that moves beyond sensationalism, conventional wisdoms and media depictions. For instance, the data are clear when it comes to racial disparities. I emphasize that when we see a clear pattern there is usually a reason. In practice, the reason may be difficult to fully decipher, and I ultimately use this to explain the goal of a lot of our work: the patterns are clear, but the reasons behind them are not and/or may be more complex than we often appreciate. So, we discover patterns, and we then do research to figure out why patterns persist and how they affect the lives of real people. This all underscores the importance of taking a critical and empirical approach. When we do this, things become more complicated, both for those who simply want to dismiss that inequalities exist and for those who are impassioned about addressing inequalities. For instance, common narratives about mass incarceration and racial inequalities in the system have focused on the war on drugs and privatization. When we look at the data, however, these narratives, while important, ultimately fall short when it comes to accounting for the growth and patterns that we see. (John Pfaff’s book Locked In provides an empirically based account that challenges common conventional wisdoms, such as the war on drugs and the privatization of prisons being the primary drivers of mass incarceration.)

I often stress that we should be saying criminal justice systems because we have hundreds of separate systems of justice in this country rather than one uniform system, and there is often a lot of variation from one system to the next (such as the system in one county versus another, one state versus another, etc.). Another theme that I emphasize is that discretion is inevitable at all layers of the justice system(s). Policing is just one layer where this is seen (such as the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk program). Judicial discretion is another.

We know that some groups are systematically advantaged by discretion (e.g., whites, people with more affluence) and others are systematically disadvantaged (e.g., non whites and the poor). I try to humanize what this looks like in terms of lived experience. I also try to emphasize patterns using parallel examples. For instance, we are talking a lot about policing and Black men at the moment. It is important to look at this within the context of Black men’s experiences with other layers of the system and their experiences with other social institutions. I also like to bring in data on the experiences of other groups as well (e.g., Latinx, Native Americans, whites) to provide a basis for asking additional questions about race and justice. I also think it is important to look at how different statuses intersect to shape peoples’ experiences (e.g., race, class, gender, sexuality, age).

Together, all of this is geared toward liberating students from their own experiences, which in my view is the goal of a liberal arts education. My hope is that rather than simply providing factual information, students will instead ultimately leave with a set of questions to ask (e.g., what patterns do the data show, why do the patterns exist, how are they experienced by real people, who benefits and who is disadvantaged by these patterns) and a desire to make positive change.