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Shytierra Gaston: Using Mixed Methodologies to Address Inequity in Criminal Justice

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The Civic Sustainability, Diversity and Inclusion Council Admin Team is pleased to welcome Dr. Shytierra Gaston to CSSH as an Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Professor Gaston comes to Northeastern from Indiana University Bloomington’s Department of Criminal Justice.

Professor Gaston’s research is, broadly, on U.S. correctional issues and topics related to race, crime, and criminal (in)justice. Her most recent work focuses on racial disparities in drug law enforcement and the collateral consequences of incarceration for families of formerly incarcerated persons. Early this fall, Gaston and seven other criminologists secured a $2.7 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to study the impact of fines and fees, paid by adults serving sentences on community supervision, including probation and parole. These fines and fees can include, for example, punitive fines, court costs, program fees, and restitution to victims. In the multi-state study, which includes Massachusetts, Gaston and her colleagues are assessing the nature and scope of fines and fees practices across community correction agencies and their impact on criminal justice-related outcomes, such as violations, revocations, and recidivism. The researchers will also conduct interviews that examine the varied burdens of these financial penalties on people who are already disproportionately disadvantaged. They aim to assess the potential burden of these monetary requirements on the families and communities of people under community supervision, as well as the criminal justice system long-term.

To accomplish research that considers people’s’ experiences of injustice to determine their potential aggregate impact, Gaston relies on an array of methodologies. She reports that quantitative methods, such as regression analysis, are dominant in Criminal Justice — the field, she says, has traditionally elevated quantitative data as “hard data” or “hard evidence.” As scholars across fields come to question the power dynamics and representational disparities involved in the collection, curation, and presentation of quantitative data, social science scholars like Gaston are relying on an increasingly diverse set of methods when investigating their research questions. To counter the potential limitations of quantitative methods in representing contextual details, she implements qualitative and mixed methodologies alongside them. For Gaston, her research questions drive her methodological choices in a “feedback loop,” where the findings of her analysis result in new questions that can only be answered with certain methods. The reasons that police cite for disproportionately stopping and arresting people of color, for example, are not captured by local violent crime rates or statistics on structural disadvantage; to attend to these ambiguities, Gaston has turned to officers’ narrative accounts, in documents and records, of their day to day, routine practices. She is not only interested in determining if there is a race-based disparity in criminal enforcement and processing — she is concerned, instead, with the how and why of that disparity.

This semester, Professor Gaston is teaching a nineteen-student undergraduate course titled, “Race, Crime, and Justice.” The course’s themes, she says, “overlap perfectly” with her research interests: it aims to provide students with foundations in the concepts of bias, racism, and discrimination. When asked about her initial impressions of the Northeastern community, Gaston noted her students’ willingness to engage with the course content. Since students populate her office hours and come to class prepared with questions on the readings, she has been able to lecture less about concepts and dialogue more about their implications. The University’s location in Boston has allowed Gaston to take advantage of the city’s history of race relations in her teaching: she exposes her students to the race-related and inequality work being done by NU affiliates and elsewhere, including the NU School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project and NU’s Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI). As she brings her research into the classroom, Gaston continues to “demystify” myths surrounding the intersection of race, crime, and justice and contemplate solutions to America’s persistent criminal justice inequities.

Published On: November 28, 2018