UW News

November 30, 2015

UW sociology professors part of White House, DOJ events on criminal justice reform

News and Information

President Obama has been leading the charge for criminal justice reform in recent months, calling for sweeping changes to reduce mass incarceration and commuting sentences for non-violent offenders.

This week, the White House and Department of Justice are bringing together researchers, legal system practitioners and advocacy organizations at events focused on criminal justice system reform — and two University of Washington sociologists are among the participants.

Alexes Harris and Hedwig (Hedy) Lee, UW associate professors of sociology, will be at a Department of Justice working session Dec. 2 focused on the role of courts in determining and enforcing legal fees and fines levied against prisoners. The session, which will examine the effect and fairness of those fees, is aimed at developing a national policy and research agenda around the issue.

The following day, Harris and Lee will be part of a White House event titled “A Cycle of Incarceration: Prison, Debt and Bail Practices.” The daylong event will focus on criminal justice system practices “that contribute to the cycle of poverty and create significant barriers to reentry,” according to the event invitation. The session aims to provide a collaborative venue to share ideas for reforms so that “financial obligations imposed by the government do not lead to unnecessary involvement in the criminal justice system or exacerbate poverty.”

UW Department of Sociology Chair Jerald Herting said Harris and Lee are “great assets” to the department.

“Their separate work on effects of the criminal justice system and incarceration on individuals, families and communities has attracted national attention and will likely help inform needed changes in policy,” he said. “It is not a surprise to find them both invited to this event at the White House.”

Harris studies social stratification and racial and ethnic disparities, particularly in the context of the criminal justice system. Her book “A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as a Permanent Punishment for the Poor” is slated for publication next summer.

Lee studies the social determinants and consequences of population health and health disparities, with an emphasis on race and ethnicity, poverty, race-related stress and the family. Her recent research focuses on the impact of incarceration on the health and attitudes of family members, the link between discrimination and health, and trends in racial and ethnic health disparities.