UMSL criminologists win prize for article examining rise in mass incarceration in US

Michael Campbell, Matt Vogel and Joshua Williams

Professors Michael Campbell (at left) and Matt Vogel (center) and doctoral student Joshua Williams are set to receive the American Society of Criminology’s 2017 Outstanding Article Award. (Photo by August Jennewein)

The message arrived without warning in Michael Campbell’s email inbox on Aug. 30, and he was still having a hard time believing its contents when he forwarded it to his colleague in the office next door.

Matt Vogel, also an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri­–St. Louis, took his time opening the email, assuming incorrectly that Campbell was requesting work on a project they’re currently undertaking. But he was hit with the same sense of astonishment when he finally clicked on it and read the first sentence:

“It is my honor to inform you (along with Matthew Vogel and Joshua Williams) that the American Society of Criminology has selected you as the recipient of the Society’s 2017 Outstanding Article Award, which is given annually to recognize the scholar(s) with the peer-reviewed article that makes ‘the most outstanding contribution to research in criminology.'”

“Yeah, I wrote back the president of our association and said, ‘I think I received this in error …’” Vogel said, laughing.

But there’d been no mistake. The American Society of Criminology had selected their article, “Historical Contingencies and the evolving importance of race, violent crime, and region in explaining mass incarceration in the United States” – for the prestigious award.

The committee in charge of selecting the winner did so after considering all other articles published in “Criminology” as well as those appearing in “Criminology & Public Policy” and submissions from other journals that were published in the 2015 calendar year.

“It’s a real honor to be singled out,” Campbell said. “Criminology is an article-driven discipline, and it literally was up against everything. It’s not like if you just know somebody important or you’re a big-name person you’re necessarily going to get this. It is about the article itself – the product of all of this effort – so it’s cool in that regard.”

Campbell, Vogel and Williams, a PhD student, will receive their prize Nov. 15 at the 2017 ASC Annual Meeting Awards Plenary in Philadelphia.

In a way, it will serve as the culmination of a project that Campbell and Vogel began five years ago, shortly after they both joined the faculty at UMSL.

“Matt’s office is just right here,” Campbell said recently while sitting at his desk in Lucas Hall and pointing to the office next door. “We interact a lot, and we both came in in the same year. I think both of us were looking for someone to work with, to collaborate with. It was convenient.”

Campbell previously co-authored a paper with Northwestern University Assistant Professor Heather Schoenfeld titled “The transformation of America’s penal order: a historicized political sociology of punishment” that was published in 2013 in the “American Journal of Sociology.” It examined which factors were behind the prison-building boom and rise in mass incarceration that has occurred in the United States since 1970.

He was interested in building on that research, which included analyzing historical case studies from only eight states, all conducted before 2001.

There was opportunity to broaden the scope by looking at state-level data from 1970 to 2010.

“It was kind of a natural fit then to test these things over these long historical decades to try to see if some of the ideas that we had put forward held up against empirical analysis over time,” Campbell said.

Vogel ended up being ideally suited to help him do so.

“Mike is a historian by training, and I’m somebody trained in statistics,” Vogel said. “You don’t usually get people like us coming together and working on a project like this. I’m sure that’s one reason why the field is responding well to the paper.”

Williams happened to be assigned to work for Campbell as a teaching and research assistant when they were beginning the project.

“It was just good timing that he was here and it fit his interests well, and I think it fit his skills well,” Campbell said. “He did a good job of figuring out how to manage a lot of data and helped us move things along a little faster.

“It was his first year, so for him, I think it was a good experience to get incorporated into the process of doing an article from the beginning.”

Their research attempted to explore the impact that factors such as violent crime, political ideology and partisanship had in explaining crime control strategies implemented over four decades that “ultimately generated a 450 percent increase in the nation’s incarceration rate.”

Their findings revealed those all varied over time and in different states.

For instance, it might be said that the high rate of violent crime pervasive in the country in the 1980s pushed policymakers to build more prisons and work to lock up more offenders. But the rise in mass incarceration continued in the United States long after the crime rate peaked about 1991, so it’s clear that was not the only thing driving the policy.

Their research also showed that the association between partisanship and the size of the incarcerated population was stronger, for example, in 1990 and 2000 – after the Republican Party’s rhetoric on the war on crime had reached a crescendo – than it had been in 1970.

Minority population size continues to have a strong relationship with the incarceration rate even after violent crime falls and partisan rhetoric dissipates.

“Race is a core part of the story,” Campbell said. “When you look at these things over time, race matters, and it’s an enduring part. That’s one of the key take-homes.”

That might have been more surprising when they arrived at that finding in 2012 than it is today with racial tensions prevalent in the news.

Campbell and Vogel are currently at work on another project examining more in depth how race operates to explain mass incarceration.

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