Vesla Weaver / Politics

The project I propose to undertake with students springs from an observation that forms the core of my research:  over the past 4 decades, punishment in the United States has consumed a larger share of public resources and the share of citizens at some point being under the supervision of correctional authorities has far outpaced any other nation in the world.  Incarceration rates have sextupled since the early 1970s and our prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers are filled with mainly black and poor people.   Experts now estimate that a third of black men born at the turn of the century will at some point in their lives be a ward of the state.

I’m consistently surprised at the number of students who take on major theses that deal directly with these developments.  I’ve come to realize that despite the discipline of political science being slow to recognize the incredible surge in punishment, students at UVA have a keen interest in studying what has led to the carceral development and the consequences of this policy shift for Americans – their ability to get jobs after felony conviction, the stability of their communities, the diminished political power of their communities due to felon disenfranchisement, and broader consequences for American democracy and inequality.

I realized it was time to teach a class for undergraduate students on Race and Punishment in American Politics and History.  I propose to use the Mead funds to expand our learning environment in the following ways.  First, after being exposed to the scholarship, I will take the students to Fluvanna Women’s Correctional Center.  The class period will be a joint class with 10 UVA students and 10 inmates.  Students and inmates will share their perspectives on the role of race in the criminal justice system, policy solutions to help inmates transition back to life on the outside, and what type of reforms will encourage both less crime and less severe punishment.  Given that most students have never experienced the inside of a prison, we will have an informal dinner at my home the week before to prepare for the interaction.  I will work with the authorities at the prison prior to our visit to discuss the policies and practices of the institution.  By speaking and interacting directly with inmates and by experiencing the procedures within the walls, this visit will take students’ learning about the carceral state beyond what can be done through textbooks.

The second part of the learning will also take place outside the classroom.  Debates about the “prison crisis” and its racial implications are taking place right now in Washington.  Several pieces of national legislation have been proposed to further limit drug sentencing disparities that disproportionately affected minorities in the urban core (i.e. Racial Justice Fairness Act) and other pieces of legislation that would reduce penalties, increase the availability of “justice reinvestment” funds to deal with the blighted communities that are the feeder population of our prisons, and to give employers a tax credit for hiring ex-felons.  The students and I will travel to Washington to observe a congressional hearing on the floor of Congress during the semester.  This will expose students directly to how political elites are debating the issue and to various policy proposals designed to increase the fairness of our justice system.  During the day visit, we will also go to the Sentencing Project to meet with its director, Marc Mauer, to discuss policy options.  Marc Mauer has been a leading critic and reformer and his think tank produces some of the best research on incarceration and its effects.

Finally, students will design a policy brief based on what they’ve learned throughout the semester.  They will work on refining their policy memo throughout the semester and ultimately will present their policy recommendation to the group at the second and final dinner at my home.  These policy briefs can confront any number of issues based on their interests and what they’ve learned.  They could propose to do away with broken windows policing methods, they could propose a specific plan for justice reinvestment, and they could recommend a series of reforms that have to do with prevention or prisoner re-entry.

The point of this proposal is to first, forge an intellectual bonding experience, one that may at times be uncomfortable (most people cry the first time they go behind prison walls) but one that will expand their perspectives.  Second, it will give students “on the ground” experience, helping them to connect scholarly ideas to actual policy debates and issues confronting the nation.  By designing policy solutions and thinking not just about describing the problem but what we can do about it, students will engage with each other in proactive ways that move beyond the traditional classroom experience.