“You can only get it once, right? So they have to whittle down. Finally, they get people like me,” he said.
His colleagues in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri–St. Louis know different.
They make clear it’s anything but happenstance that Rosenfeld, a Founders Professor, is set to receive a prize that, since its inception in 1960, has been used to single out senior scholars for careers’ worth of contributions to the field.
He will accept the award and address an audience of roughly 4,000 criminologists from across the country and around the globe on Wednesday at the ASC’s annual meeting in Philadelphia.
“The last 25 years Rick really hit his stride and started to become a recognized force in the field,” said Professor Finn Esbensen, chair of UMSL’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
He pointed to Rosenfeld’s theoretical work with Steven Messner at the University at Albany, which produced the book “Crime and the American Dream,” which explores institutional anomie theory and is now in its fifth edition.
He also noted his more recent research on gun violence and crime trends.
“The last 15 years, he’s become a leading criminologist in terms of working with government agencies – the National Academies of Sciences, the Department of Justice,” Esbensen said. “He’s really quite high profile and a very professional spokesperson for the discipline of criminology.”
That had not been Rosenfeld’s intended field when he began pursuing his PhD in sociology at the University of Oregon or even when he finished.
“I was interested in social inequality – income inequality, political inequalities and so forth,” said Rosenfeld, though the final chapter of his dissertation did include a time series analysis of income equality and crime rates in the United States.
“I thought that unequal communities, unequal societies give rise to certain kinds of crime,” he added, “and that’s a theme that’s persisted throughout my career.”
It was an experience he had while still working on his dissertation that first got him thinking about crime.
He’d moved across the country to take a teaching position at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. A friend from nearby Skidmore College contacted him and asked him if he’d like to teach a course in a higher education program at Great Meadow Correctional Facility 65 miles north of Troy.
Rosenfeld ended up taking him up on the offer and after teaching a few years went on to become the program’s academic administrator. It put him in contact with offenders and made him ponder their circumstances.
After completing his dissertation, he spent a year doing a postdoctoral research fellowship at the School of Urban and Public Affairs at Carnegie-Mellon University. His work was focused on changes over time in crime rates and the conditions associated with those changes, and that helped solidify his interest.
“I’m fascinated by the conditions under which people will follow rules or break rules, and that’s basically what we criminologists study,” he said.
After spending three years as an assistant professor of sociology at Skidmore College, he joined the faculty of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at UMSL in a move that not only focused his field of study, but also had the added benefit of bringing him back to his hometown after 20 years away.
It has proved an ideal place to cultivate his career.
“We’ve built – and I think it’s fair to say that those of us now who’ve been around here 20 years or more, we really did build – a very, very strong department,” he said. “We’ve always built it by adding people who we knew would become good colleagues, and that means among many other things co-authors on papers, co-investigators on externally funded research.
“So one influence that encouraged all of us to work hard is we all have colleagues who we enjoy being around, and we all take pride in everyone’s achievements, individual achievements. So that’s been a very important influence, not just on me but I think on most of us in criminology and criminal justice in our department.”
Rosenfeld has worked as hard as anybody. He’s helped author eight books, published 86 journal articles, produced dozens of book chapters and served as an investigator on more than 20 externally funded grants, not to mention been active in professional organizations such as the ASC, for which he served as president in 2009-10.
“I like to write, I like to do research, so everything about the job appealed to me,” he said. “Sad to say I suppose, but I don’t have a lot of other activities or interests. I do have a personal life, but my wife Janet [Lauritsen]’s also a criminologist, so that doesn’t get me very far afield.”
Rosenfeld spent much of the first half of his career with his attention turned mostly to the theoretical realm, trying to answer questions he had about social order. Those included what happens when rules are broken, who’s most likely to break or comply with them and under what conditions.
Over the past decade, Rosenfeld has found that his work can help shape public debate and influence policy, whether it was his much-cited research on the sudden rise in homicides across the United States that began in 2015 or his role in the public safety partnership between UMSL and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. That partnership has given Rosenfeld and his colleagues access to data for their research and also positioned them to work closely with counterparts at the police department as they tackle specific problems.
Esbensen notified members of the department last spring about Rosenfeld’s selection for the Sutherland Award and asked them to congratulate their “retired” colleague, who was appointed a Founders Professor in 2014.
But Rosenfeld isn’t really stepping back from his work. He’s currently waiting to publish a follow-up piece on the rise in homicide rates for the National Institute of Justice based on data from 2016.
He continues to be an asset for the department at UMSL.
“With his recognized status in the field, we benefit greatly from the fact that we still list him as an active faculty member,” Esbensen said. “That’s really unquantifiable.
“I still remember about a decade ago one of the graduate students we accepted, to this day goes, ‘I couldn’t believe it, Rick Rosenfeld called me to say I was accepted. Rick Rosenfeld.’ He has that kind of an impact.”