Erin Kerrison and Jennifer Skeem Address one of the Grand Challenges of Social Work

June 3, 2019

A Complex Equation: Erin Kerrison and Jennifer Skeem explore the intersection of public health, public safety, equitable treatment, and the criminal justice system

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In 2016, over 6.6 million adults were under correctional supervision, and an additional 975,000 youths under 18 had cases pass through the juvenile court system. The impacts of justice system involvement are disproportionately felt by low-income families and communities of color. The economic and human costs of this crisis have led the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare to identify smart decarceration as one of the Grand Challenges for Social Work. Berkeley Social Welfare faculty members Erin Kerrison and Jennifer Skeem examine the impact of the criminal justice system on vulnerable populations.

Erin KerrisonAssistant Professor Erin Kerrison looks at the criminal justice system through the lens of legal epidemiology, the scientific study of how laws affect public health. The field has a broad reach, encompassing those who are accused of crimes, those who are convicted of crimes, those who are victims of crimes, and also those working within the system such as police, correctional officers, and attorneys. Health impacts can be physical (high blood pressure, asthma...) mental (anxiety, PTSD), and behavioral (substance abuse). Fatalities during police / citizen interactions or within the carceral system are one highly visible type of poor health outcome, but the repercussions of those events throughout communities have their own health impacts as well.

Kerrison highlights the fundamentally interdisciplinary nature of her work: "My approach to these issues draws from anthropology, sociology, criminology, philosophy — because it raises questions about citizenship, othering, and who merits well-being — as well as social work and social welfare."

In "The Mismeasure of Terry Stops: Assessing the Psychological and Emotional Harms of Stop and Frisk to Individuals and Communities," Kerrison and her co-authors examine the cumulative impact of stop-and-frisk policies on individuals and communities. In its 1968 decision in Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court ruled that a pat-down by law enforcement does not violate an individual's rights. But while Terry v. Ohio examined the impact of a single search, it did not address the cumulative impact of stop-and frisk or the effect of repeated searches. "The Mismeasure of Terry Stops" maintains that whatever an individual's experience of a single patdown may be, that impact is greatly magnified when stop-and-search is an established policing practice. Some residents in certain neighborhoods in New York have reported being stopped 50 or more times in a year. "Can you imagine if that was just part of your repertoire? Going to the grocery store, going to basketball practice, picking up your sibling from school, and there's a pretty good chance that one day in seven you're going to be stopped by an officer?" asks Kerrison. Moreover, she explains, stop-and-frisk can entail much more than a brief pat-down of outer clothing; complaints of assault are not uncommon.

The impacts are particularly acute for children (teens are frequently subjected to Terry stops) and members of hyper-marginalized communities. Kerrison and her co-authors argue that the overall effect is "more than the sum of its parts," and that Supreme Court's opinion that a Terry stop is a mere inconvenience does not reflect the experience of feeling repeatedly targeted. More broadly, in addition to causing a wide range of emotional and psychological harms, stop-and-frisk policies can erode trust within a community in ways that potentially interfere with the ability of law enforcement to prevent and investigate crime.

In another recent article with the unforgettable title of "Your Pants Won't Save You," Kerrison and her co-authors examine generational differences within Baltimore's Black community in attitudes towards interactions with law enforcement personnel in the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death. Their study found universal agreement that Freddie Gray's treatment while in custody was utterly unacceptable. However, questions around why Freddie Gray was detained in the first place revealed a deep fissure between the perceptions of personal responsibility as espoused by baby boomer generations and as espoused by millennials. Older respondents tended to adhere to Black respectability politics — lessons around avoidance, deference, and the notion of "keep[ing] your nose clean and your head down." Black millennials, meanwhile, questioned the premise of their elders that hostility toward Black youth is a function of personal irresponsibility rather than structural injustice. They described getting harassed while walking home from school in navy blue plaid uniforms, and asserted their right to come home safe whether or not they were adhering to the expectations of mainstream White society. Kerrison paraphrases their viewpoint as "it doesn't matter what I'm wearing; if I'm walking around in a Black body I'm going to lose."

To Kerrison's knowledge, this was the first time this generational difference in attitudes towards legal cynicism (or a lack of trust in the legal authority that police officers hold) has been addressed in research literature.

Kerrison's approach is holistic, recognizing that policing tactics have an impact on all those involved, including law enforcement officers. She examines the unique stressors of the job — "other people run away from gunshots; police run towards them" — and the compounding effects of a climate where the actions of police are routinely mistrusted.

In her work with one police department, Kerrison studied officers' use of body-worn cameras and their attitudes towards them. Ambivalent attitudes towards body-worn cameras are not uncommon among police; their use can be perceived as exposing officers to criticism of decisions from people who have no experience of their lived reality. Moreover, police officers' work is subject to a level of public scrutiny that simply doesn't apply to many other professions where decisions can have life-or-death consequences. "You don't film cardiac surgeons and tell them what they should do differently when someone dies. I don't know whether that should be the case, but the point is, it isn't."

While the current focus on using bodycam footage to uncover misconduct is important, Kerrison maintains, its potential as a teaching tool is underutilized. "Camera footage can provide examples of real-life interactions that officers have with civilians — who are, for example, selling drugs in an open-air market or wielding a gun — and it can provide an opportunity to examine the ways that officers rely on de-escalation techniques to get everybody home safely. Camera footage isn't typically used in that way, and a lot of officers who participated in my study have cited that as a need."

Camera footage also affords unique opportunities to look at the impacts of officers' experiences on their health. By reviewing footage with officers and asking them what was running through their minds in the moment, Kerrison can compile qualitative data on the health detriments of police work. She also recognizes that stressors for law enforcement personnel have an impact on communities, and advocates for the implementation of reforms in a way that incorporates their perspectives: "Data-driven policing reform involves looking at the experiences of the officers and examining how their lives are informed by these policies."

Kerrison just finished a year as Vice President of Research at the Center for Policing Equity, housed at the CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She has now returned to her full-time role in the School of Social Welfare.

The work of Mack Distinguished Professor Jennifer Skeem is designed to inform efforts to prevent violence and other criminal behavior — and to improve the lives of people at risk. Her current work uses data science to measure the effectiveness and fairness of risk assessment algorithms — and examines innovative behavioral intervention options for people involved in the justice system. Her work stands to measure the impact of risk assessment on racial disparities in sentencing, and to connect individuals with services that will improve outcomes for them and for the communities they live in.

How do we accurately and fairly assess the likelihood that an individual will reoffend? Risk assessment may be a powerful tool for reducing mass incarceration without compromising public safety, but it is a complex equation — literally. Risk assessment instruments have been used for decades. But now, with the ready availability of administrative data and predictive algorithms, there is great capacity to expand the reach of risk assessment.

One concern is that widespread use of risk assessment will exacerbate existing socioeconomic and racial disparities in sentencing. Risk assessment instruments factor in criminal history, which predicts future offending, but may also reflect biases in arrest and conviction. In addition, risk assessment tools also include other factors that predict future offending. Employment, educational attainment, anti-social attitudes, criminal peers, etc. may be included, even though some of these factors have nothing to do with how blameworthy somebody is for a particular offense. There is concern that some of those factors can be associated with race and socioeconomic status.

In an article published in Criminology, Skeem and her colleague Chris Lowenkamp found that a risk assessment instrument used in the federal system was free of predictive bias by race — a score on that instrument translated to the same probability of rearrest for a violent crime, regardless of whether a person was Black or White. Despite this lack of predictive bias, Black people obtained somewhat higher risk scores than White people on average — which raises concerns about disparate impact for some applications of the instrument.

Skeem stresses the need for studies to directly examine the effect of risk assessment on existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in incarceration. She has begun to do so, in vignette-based studies of real judges. She anticipates that the impact of allowing judges to consider risk assessment rather than rely solely on their professional judgment may vary by region and potentially by jurisdiction.

"The real question is "compared to what?" And the answer to that question probably varies as a function of what sentencing practices are being replaced. If risk assessment is introduced in a jurisdiction where historically there have been pronounced disparities by race, it could be that risk assessment would have more of a gap-narrowing effect than it would in a jurisdiction with fewer sentencing disparities." Moreover, replacing individual judgement with formalized assessment will bring increased transparency to sentencing, making discrepancies easier to identify and address.

Skeem and her Risk Resilience research lab also examine "what works" to reduce justice involvement among people with serious mental illness. Diagnoses of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other major mental disorders are three times as prevalent among justice-involved adults than among the general population. However, her work provides little evidence that symptoms of mental illness directly cause justice involvement. "We have found that people with mental illness involved in the justice system share most major risk factors for recidivism with their non-mentally-ill counterparts. So they are as likely or more likely to have substance abuse problems, criminal peers, emotion regulation problems.... many common risk factors you see in the general correctional population. That's probably one of the reasons that it rarely works to just link people with psychiatric treatment and then expect that they won't come to the attention of the police again."

Under the direct leadership of Dr. Sharon Farrell, Skeem's lab is currently conducting randomized controlled trials to determine the value of adding a cognitive-behavioral treatment group that focuses on common risk factors for offending (e.g. anger management) to traditional psychiatric treatment, in preventing recidivism for this group. Their work relies on evidence-based treatment and case management approaches valued in social work as it aims to determine a more nuanced answer to the question of what works for people with mental illness in the justice system, and which approaches best serve individuals' and communities' interests.

Skeem's prior work with Lina Montoya (in Biostatistics) indicates that people with serious mental illness and their communities can benefit substantially from appropriate correctional services. In a quasi-experiment published in JAMA-Psychiatry, they found that specialty mental health probation greatly reduced people's likelihood of re-arrest compared to traditional probation. This was also a cost-effective use of resources: specialty mental health probation resulted in a net cost savings of 51% compared to traditional probation.

Skeem and the Risk Resilience lab are also examining trends in "debt-free justice," an emerging area that reflects a larger shift from punitive to rehabilitative mindsets in the justice system. Historically, many jurisdictions have charged fees to caregivers to offset the costs of their children's' legal representation, detention, and probation. Like cash bail, these fees may have a disproportionate impact on lower-income segments of the population. In the case of juvenile justice, the financial burden of these fees falls on parents and guardians, but there has been relatively little study of the impact of fees on family debt, stress, and other factors that could impact recidivism.

In 2018, California repealed counties' authority to charge fees to caregivers for juveniles' detention, supervision, or defense. With doctoral student Jaclyn Chambers, Skeem and her colleagues are collaborating with two counties to examine the impact of fee repeal on families' financial health, youths' risk of recidivism, and youths' length of probation.

Both Skeem's and Kerrison's research highlights the toll that current practices take on individuals and on communities. As Skeem puts it, "in recent years there has been increasing recognition of the fiscal, moral and human costs of incarceration. Policies in the United States have favored mass incarceration and mass supervision; but there's not much evidence that's making us safer. We have now entered an exciting period of interest in "evidence-based" justice reform." Kerrison's and Skeem's research takes promising steps towards more effective and equitable approaches to justice.