fbpx Q&A with Sandra Susan Smith: Understanding injustices and striving to make lives better | Harvard Kennedy School

Faculty Focus logo.Sandra Susan Smith’s academic path began at her doorstep. Growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, she saw her city crumbling while other areas flourished, and she wanted to know why. That path has led Smith, Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice, to become one of the country’s leading sociologists, an expert in the areas of urban poverty, joblessness, and criminal justice. After 16 years at University of California, Berkeley, Smith joined Harvard Kennedy School in July. She has immediately made an impact on the School. With Professor of History, Race, and Public Policy Khalil Muhammad, Smith taught “Race and Racism in the Making of the United States as a Global Power” (DPI-385), a new core requirement for all MPP students. Smith is also faculty director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy.

Sandra Susan Smith on the early influences of her academic career

Sandra Susan Smith headshot.Q: How do your research and teaching connect to the solution of pressing problems in the world today?

Earlier in my career, I hadn’t been pushed to seriously consider the policy implications of my own research. Sociologists are trained to offer compelling diagnoses of societal problems, historically speaking, but offering prescriptions for change has not been a priority or a strength. Over the past decade, however, it became far more important for me to not only speak to the problems of today, but also to imagine different futures and the pathways to those futures.

My current research tries to answer the question about why spending more than one day in pre-trial detention dramatically increases an individual’s likelihood of future criminal justice involvement, both in the short and long term. All things being equal, after pretrial detention, people are much less likely to attend court hearings; they are also more likely to be re-arrested. A growing body of research also indicates that pretrial detention has a host of other really negative outcomes. Just to name a few, they are less likely to find work, work fewer weeks each year, and earn lower wages.

Further, these social costs of pretrial detention far outweigh whatever benefit society thinks that it might have. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of people who are detained are low-level, low-risk defendants, and most are being held because they are too poor to post bail. By unnecessarily holding most of these individuals, we are creating recidivists out of many who would very likely not reoffend. This represents yet another very troubling pattern in our penal system.

My work really tries to explain why even short stints in jail awaiting case adjudication dramatically alters individuals’ life chances – how these patterns emerge, what the various mechanisms are, and what kinds of structural and cultural changes  to our institutions, through our policies and procedures, are needed to reduce the kind of harm that our system causes, especially to Black, Indigenous, and Brown communities and to low-income communities in general. So, this body of research addresses some really core issues and highlights a set of policy interventions that can actually improve the lives of individuals, families, and communities.

 

Q: You’re teaching “Race and Racism in the Making of the United States as a Global Power” this year. What is the most important thing you want students to take away from your class?

The most important thing that I wanted students to take away from our class is that the United States is a racial state in which each of its major institutions acts as an institution of racial domination through which various modes of domination are deployed to oppress and exploit, reproducing, generation after generation, longstanding racial hierarchies and durable inequalities.

 

Q: How have your life experiences influenced your academic direction?

I am from Hartford, Connecticut. I was born and raised there in the ’70s and ’80s. During that period, Hartford went through an economic transformation. The structure of the economy changed; factories closed and there were few other job opportunities for poor folks and lower-middle-class folks. With the decline of those kinds of jobs, rates of joblessness grew; more people had to rely on public assistance to make ends meet; crime increased; drug addiction became a serious public health issue. So, as a child I watched as my city deteriorated before my eyes. It was hard not to wonder what was going on, what forces were behind such an awful transformation of my city. My parents are immigrants from Jamaica, and my father would talk about these transformations. It was always a part of our dinner and breakfast conversations. He has a really strong sociological imagination, and I think he planted those seeds in me, those questions that just animated my thinking.

I went off to college with those questions in mind. There was nothing more important to me than understanding why my city seemed to be dying. And the issue for me was that while Hartford seem to be dying—and I knew that this was also the case for New Haven and Bridgeport, the other two major cities in Connecticut—the suburbs that surrounded Hartford seemed to be doing perfectly fine. Those folks would drive into Hartford to their jobs in the finance or real estate industry and then drive back home to the suburbs, seemingly untouched by the transformations that were basically killing the economic circumstances of my neighbors.

And so, as I went looking for ways to make sense of the world that I came from, I discovered sociology. It was best able to address the questions that I had. In particular, I was drawn to the work of [Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Emeritus] William Julius Wilson. Reading his book, The Truly Disadvantaged, was the first time I felt I had a really good, comprehensive explanation for what happened to Hartford. I came to understand that what happened to Hartford was happening to many cities in the Northeast and Midwest. The Truly Disadvantaged just opened my world and set me on a path. After graduating from college, I went to the University of Chicago, which is where Wilson was then teaching. He became the chair of my dissertation committee. So, he's actually been a major influence in my life since I was 18 years old.  

"There was nothing more important to me than understanding why my city seemed to be dying."

Sandra Susan Smith

Q: How do you plan on keeping connected with your students and the HKS community while we are remote?

I guess a couple of ways. Because of DPI-385, a course on race and racism in the United States, I've made a number of connections with students whose interests I am intrigued by, and we have promised to stay in touch. They will keep me abreast of developments in their academic career and beyond. And then there are a number of students who are interested in the research that I do, and I will be incorporating some of these students into these projects;  research is always a lot more fun and fulfilling when you have other smart, energetic, and creative people with whom to collaborate. And then of course I will be making connections through the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management. The students here seem incredibly engaged. They come with a wealth of knowledge because of their incredible experiences prior to their arrival.  Their passions and commitments are certainly a key ingredient to creating a vibrant community of scholars, activists, and practitioners.

 

Q: What is one interesting fact about you that most people don't know?

I love mountain biking. I started to mountain bike when I was about 35, so I've been doing it about 15 years now. It's an activity that can be physically and mentally challenging. It also forces you to focus, otherwise you will hurt yourself badly. So, it's a great activity to take your mind off of work and anything else that you might be obsessing over. I did a lot of it when I lived in California, and I'm looking forward to finding trails and tackling them here.


Faculty portrait by Martha Stewart

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