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Justice Studies Professor Explores Pathways Out of Crime

Volunteers are sitting with clients at tables and going over paperwork

Volunteers work with eligible people to expunge their criminal record through the Record Clearance Project (Justice Studies photo).

By Amanda Holst, Public Affairs Assistant

For some, having the stigma of a criminal record can be extremely debilitating, preventing even the most qualified candidate from getting a job or a loan.

Department of Justice Studies Assistant Professor Danielle Harris does research on the criminological perspective of desistance, a term describing a decrease or end to committing crime.

“There are control theories on why people offend early and continue and start to offend later in life, but nobody has looked at people that have offended and then stopped,” Harris said.

Harris studies changes in such behavior over the course of life, particularly the pathways out of crime.

Last year, she presented preliminary findings at the American Society of Criminology conference in Washington, D.C. Subsequent data will be presented at the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences conference in New York City March 13-17.

“The main thing that is coming out of the research so far is that we are capturing people that have left this life behind them,” Harris said. “Yet they still have the stigma of a criminal record even though in their identity they are really no longer that person.”

According to Harris, some of the leading factors that take people away from crime include parenthood, employment, an end to drug and alcohol abuse, and personal agency and cognitive transformations where “people just wake up one morning and say, “I don’t want to go to be in prison any more.’”

Six interviewees came from SJSU’s Record Clearance Project, which works with Santa Clara County in expunging records of people who have overcome past transgressions. As a volunteer for the program, Harris helps prepare clients for their hearing by holding a “moot court” in an actual courtroom at Santa Clara University’s law school. According to Harris, the success rate of the program is high. Out of 300 clients, 280 clients’ records have been expunged.

Harris hopes her research will convey the importance of self-sufficiency and inform public policy.

“There is an assumption that once you offend, you will be a chronic long-term offender, Harris said.  “A lot of the policies in place don’t influence desistance in any useful way. None of the things that we are doing now are working.”