Investing in Justice Pilot Projects

The Investing in Justice Pilot Projects provides funding and support for collaborative research, curriculum development and conferences that are working to address issues of incarceration and criminal justice. Our inaugural cohort includes projects focusing on issues of reentry, peer mentorship, aging in prison, employment, incarcerated parents and art as a platform for exploring mass incarceration. Please find more information about the recipients of this funding and their projects below.

Steps to Reentry: An understanding of the steps to successful community reintegration
PI: Pamela Valera, PhD 
Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health
While researchers have documented the public health importance of criminal justice populations’ participation in reentry programs very little is empirically known about how individuals who have been formerly incarcerated overcome barriers to reentry as they reintegrate into poor and socially disadvantaged neighborhoods. Lack of knowledge about the reentry process, limited employment opportunities, distrust of providers, and unequal access to health screening, prevention, and treatment services are a few contributing factors that increase their risks upon release. In addition, we know very little about the necessary steps or ingredients for successful community reintegration among criminal justice populations returning to neighborhoods in New York City.  Thus, this pilot study has two specific aims: (1)to describe the steps to successful  reentry among individuals who have been formerly incarcerated; and (2) to examine the ingredients to successful reintegration so that a fellowship of formerly incarcerated individuals can support one another during the reentry process.

The Power of Peers: A Strengths-Based Leadership and Social Capital Development Project
PI: Susan Sturm, J.D.
Columbia Law School 
Education is personally and financially empowering for people returning home
from jail and prison, enabling them to become leaders and change-agents in their
families, communities, workplaces, and in the policy arena. However, justice-involved
students face many barriers that prevent them from accessing and/or succeeding in
education programs. Many individuals with criminal records do not believe that they can
succeed educationally as a result of negative experiences while in school. Many also
have misconceptions that their criminal justice backgrounds preclude them from applying
to education programs or receiving financial aid, or do not know how to navigate
education system bureaucracies. Education practitioners have found the development of
peer mentoring programs to be one of the most cost-effective ways to help students
overcome these significant challenges and to develop the social networks needed for
support and educational success. Peer mentoring programs also build the leadership skills
of peer mentors and create social capital within education programs, families and

The New York Reentry Education Network (NYREN) is a group of representatives
from 30 community-based organizations, government agencies, and higher education
institutions working together in New York City to make education a central component
in successful reentry. NYREN’s peer mentoring working group will collaborate with the
Center for Institutional and Social Change at the Law School to undertake a participatory
research project that will: 1) document the barriers to success that face NYREN
members’ students and their programs and how peer mentoring can help overcome these
barriers; 2) catalogue core elements of, different approaches to, and tools and practices
used in peer mentoring programs and how these elements, approaches, and practices
serve different age cohorts and settings (e.g.; reentry versus corrections); 3) identify the
barriers that peer mentors experience in serving students, as well as the knowledge,
resources and strategies that mentors have identified as helping them to succeed, and 4)
engage researchers at Columbia University from disciplines such as public health, social
work, workforce development, education, law, public policy, and mental health in a
dialogue bringing their knowledge, projects and research to bear on the question of
identifying and addressing barriers to reentry and educational success for justice-
involved people, and to incorporate this knowledge to inform a more holistic approach to
peer mentoring. This multi-disciplinary inquiry will be designed to equip peer mentors to
develop into transformative leaders and to help address the full range of barriers students

Hearing the Voices of Criminal Justice Involved Mothers and Transforming the
Dialogue into Reflective Planning for Shared Care Giving of Their Separated
PI: Mary Byrne, PhD 
Columbia University School of Nursing 
Under Dr. Mary Byrne and the Center for Children and Families in the School of Nursing an interdisciplinary team has been developing and testing a group process intervention to support triadic caregiver arrangements that come into existence when mothers are temporarily separated from their dependent children through incarceration or residential substance abuse programs. The CJI pilot award supports rapid and accurate transcription and thoughtful interpretation of the empirical group sessions that comprise part of a series of partially funded projects with criminal justice involved mothers in two prison settings and one community based residence for substance abuse treatment.

Graying Out the Threat? Exploring the Impact of Age and Race in Criminal Sentencing Decisions
PIs: Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, Ph.D & Michael North, Ph.D 
Columbia University Psychology Department 
Despite overall decreases in U.S. incarceration rates, two alarming trends persist—disproportionately high rates among African Americans, and aging, overcrowded prison populations. From a social psychological standpoint, these trends offer seemingly contradictory predictions: Blacks are perceived as threatening, but people appear increasingly less threatening as they age. Aiming to resolve this dichotomy, this project explores the intersectional impact of age and race on criminal sentencing and parole outcomes. Do attitudes toward convicts change as they age, such that they are perceived as increasingly less threatening? Does race still matter, or does age “gray out” the threat? How much does an inmate’s aged appearance have to change in order to enhance perceived deservingness of a second chance?  In answering these questions, this work employs diverse methods: (1) experiments establishing a causal relationship between demographic appearance and sentencing and parole decisions; (2) implicit and explicit measures of person perception; (3) on-site field research at local penal sites; and (4) consultations with the Criminal Justice Initiative, the African American Policy Forum, and the National Institute of Aging. The findings should yield both theoretical and practical implications, as disproportionately Black prison populations continue to age.

Out But Still Doing Time: Effects of Employment Screenings on Job Applicants with Criminal Records
PIs: Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, Ph.D & Michael J. Naft, J.D.
Columbia University Psychology Department 
We propose to explore effects of criminal-record history screening questions in employment applications on cognitive and behavioral measures of former offenders — specifically, former criminals responding to criminal-history disclosure questions on employment applications.  We predict that stigma associated with disclosing a history of criminal conviction and incarceration will lead to social identity threat, with cognitive and behavioral outcomes that will negatively impact an applicant’s performance on a job application. In particular, we hypothesize that when a criminal record is made salient (such as checking of box in an employment content), but not when it is not made salient, former offenders will show worse performance in job-seeking measures than people without criminal records.  This performance decrement should be worse for African Americans than White Americans.

While African Americans and White Americans are our primary focus, this investigation will, where possible, explore other promising dimensions, such as gender and intersectionality (differences between Blacks and White women), and type of crime committed. Study 1 will be an ethnographic study in which semi-structured interviews will be employed to gain information regarding former offenders’ experiences with criminal-record disclosure questions on job applications.  Study 2 will be a laboratory study that that employs social psychological measures to examine effects of the inclusion of these questions in former offenders’ job applications.

Art and the Politics of Mass Incarceration: Well Contested Sites Symposium
Selby Schwartz, PhD
Columbia University Undergraduate Writing Program 
Engaging vital issues of criminal justice through the arts, this symposium
centers on the award-winning dance/theater film Well Contested Sites, which
was created collaboratively by artists and formerly incarcerated men. Three
of the artists—choreographer Amie Dowling (University of San Francisco),
filmmaker Austin Forbord, and participant Reginold Daniels—will present
the film at Columbia. This project invites Columbia and Barnard students to
join the conversation about creative alternatives to mass incarceration through
new media initiatives, workshops, and special events for students in University
Writing and in Barnard’s Department of Dance. A public event on Saturday,
March 1 includes a film screening, a conversation with the artists, and a panel
featuring faculty and community activists discussing restorative justice, the
politics of race and gender, art and ethics, and human rights at home.