“As social scientists, we think it is possible to develop a more equitable, more effective, and more efficient criminal justice system,” says BCLA Sociology professor Stacy Burns. With that goal in mind, she partnered with Mark Peyrot, professor emeritus of sociology at Loyola University Maryland, to write Social Problems and Social Control in Criminal Justice (June 2022, Lynne Rienner Publishers), which explores government efforts to address social problems in the context of the criminal justice system.
Burns’ research for the book led to some surprising findings. One of the most significant surprises came with the unprecedented visibility and enhanced scrutiny of deadly police shootings and racial bias. “With the advent of citizens’ cell phone videos and footage from police dashboard and body-cameras, police actions are documented to a degree never possible before…The many recent high-profile police killings of black and brown civilians captured on video have increased public awareness of how prevalent and enduring this problem is.” As a result, Burns says public pushback against the police has risen to an extent not seen since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Nonetheless, officers involved in on-duty shootings and excessive force rarely face criminal charges, and when they do, convictions are even rarer. It remains to be seen whether public protest efforts can succeed in modifying or dismantling longstanding legal protections for police, government policy, and policing practices.
Another surprise Burns encountered during her research is the inaction of the federal government in response to mass shootings, particularly the killing of children, such as at Stoneman Douglas high school and Sandy Hook elementary school. Burns says this lack of reform can’t be understood without first understanding the larger issue of gun violence and gun violence prevention in America. The mass shootings covered in national media are only a small part of the country’s total gun violence. Yet despite this massive and unrelenting carnage, there has been little gun violence prevention legislation or policy reform at the federal level to address gun violence.
Professor Burns stresses that the criminal justice system is continually evolving. This can be clearly seen in the radical transformation of marijuana legalization at the state level. While marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, a growing number of states have passed legislation that countermands this federal law and yet the federal government has not quashed this usurpation.
As a researcher, Professor Burns’ role is to “identify the mechanisms and pivotal moments where change does, or at least potentially can occur.” She hopes that readers of this book will gain a better appreciation of the fact that just because the criminal justice system has always operated in a certain way doesn’t mean that it must continue to work that way. Burns anticipates that her book will spur critical thinking about the development and operation of the criminal justice system; the changes and shifts in social control efforts; and how those efforts sometimes exacerbate the very problems they try to alleviate. On a more immediate level, Professor Burns wants readers to consider the meaning of justice in their own lives, and the role that everyone can play in re-envisioning public safety and the relationship between communities and the criminal justice system: “Keeping communities safe doesn’t just involve individual interactions, such as those between police officers and the public, it is also about ensuring that the institutions of government are serving all the people.”