Faculty Spotlight: Why Don Hummer Thinks this is the Most Exciting Chapter in Criminal Justice

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Don Hummer
Photo: Don Hummer

Don Hummer never set out to study criminal justice. He took one class in college, as an undergraduate, and was hooked. “It just clicked,” he says, in a way that other subjects didn’t. He wanted to go to the library to research. He wanted to read. Hummer earned his MS, then PhD and now teaches widely on the subject, with an emphasis on corrections. The 2008 book Hummer co-authored, The Culture of Prison Violence, is an evidence-based examination of the cause, prevention, and control of prison violence – and his forthcoming book, The Technology Revolution in Criminal Justice, tackles how technology is transforming not just law enforcement but law and corrections as well.

“This is the only job I’ve ever had,” says Hummer. And yet he feels that right now might be the most exciting chapter yet. “What happens in criminal justice in the next 25 years is being determined right now,” says Hummer. “I don’t think a program could be starting at a more critical time.”

Let’s start really big. What does criminal justice mean to you?

I look at it in two parts. Criminology, where we study why people do the things they do, from the criminal standpoint; and criminal justice, which is what we do about it from a systems standpoint. We are a nation of laws, a nation of social order, and the criminal justice system has the responsibility for addressing violations of that order, and to do it in a fair and compassionate and socially responsible manner.

Has that meaning changed over the course of your career?

It has. My definition has remained fairly consistent, but society and the criminal justice system have come around more. The perspective used to be that criminal justice was an instrument of punishment—if someone does something wrong, you punish them. But as we’ve seen, and what’s at the center of a lot of debate right now, is that we aren’t just punishing individuals for their wrongdoing, we’re punishing communities, which punishes all of society. Criminal justice isn’t free. We have to pay for all of this. Meaning, that when we have enacted a new policy or strategy that is intended to be preventative or a deterrent, these initiatives must be paid for with tax dollars. Really, any time an offender enters into the justice system, there are expenditures that go along with that intervention. Therefore, in terms of policy, we have to be cognizant of both the monetary and social costs of how we address criminal lawbreaking.

You studied sociology and anthropology as an undergraduate. How does that relate?

Ten years ago, I wrote a book, The Culture of Prison Violence. That work was informed by years of fieldwork in prisons. I relied heavily, in particular, on cultural anthropology, to apply a cultural framework to an institution that tended not to be looked at from that perspective. We used to think, when bad stuff goes on in prisons, that the inmates deserved it – because prisons are full of violent people. What our work found was that the way the organization is run, if there are certain values that are adhered to, inmates will follow suit. If management doesn’t tolerate rule violations by employees or mistreatment of inmates by staff, inmates will benefit by being in a healthier institutional atmosphere. Inmate behavior itself will model the standards set and demonstrated by management.

Organizational culture is one of the strongest things we have, when we talk about group behavior, but we never, or rarely, applied it to corrections. To me, that’s my thread, from my undergraduate days through the 20-plus years I’ve been doing this.

What drew you to this corner of academia?

When I was a graduate student, corrections was a forgotten part of criminal justice. In the 90s, in particular, we focused a lot on police. I always thought, What about when the offender is in custody? What about probation, parole, jail or prison? Offenders spend years in corrections, and only a matter of minutes with police. We knew almost nothing about it. And what happens when people come back to communities as different people—or similar people, but worse. That experience was what we should be focusing on. That’s the part that we pay the most money for. I thought there was a lot of work to do there, a ripe area to focus on policy change.

What kind of policy change?

Post-World War II America basically used large-scale – often called “mass”– incarceration as its default means of sanctioning offenders. This led to prison overcrowding and a drain on correctional funds. Therefore, prisons became “warehouses” of offenders for longer periods of time, but because of the funding and space issues, the types of “correctional” programs that were once used to facilitate improvements in offenders before they were released (educational programs, vocational training, life skills programs) fell by the wayside. The latter part of the 20th century saw inmates come out of prison worse than when they went in – they were accustomed to a culture of violence and often damaged by practices such as segregated confinement. Once society became knowledgeable about the issues within American corrections, meaningful policy changes could be enacted, which we are seeing now in Criminal Justice Reform.

How does corrections, your specific area of expertise within the criminal justice system, interface with the other areas? 

Because my focus is on corrections, I see the work that I do impacting the criminal justice system as a whole by helping to reduce the cycle of offending. One of the elements that led to mass incarceration is the number of individuals who entered the system and would not exit the system – they just kept on the carousel of offending, being arrested, being found guilty in court, and going to jail or prison, and repeated this cycle over and over. The more offenders who work their way out of the system will significantly reduce the burden on all agencies in the criminal justice system. Thus, the better work that is done on the correctional side of the equation will have positive ramifications for police, courts, and society in general.

What are common misconceptions about working in criminal justice?

In my nearly 30 years of studying criminal justice, I continue to believe that the biggest misconception about working in the justice system is that those working in the field deal with some large, definable, exotic pool of offenders that is somehow different from the rest of the public. Those who work in the criminal justice system realize very quickly that the ‘offending population’ is inextricably intertwined with the ‘law-abiding’ segment of society and that all of us interact, in one way or another, daily with individuals who have broken the law, been arrested, been found guilty, and have been sanctioned by the justice system. There is not a geographic region or demographic grouping that is isolated from this idea. Therefore, the story of criminal justice in a society is the story of society itself.

Why is now the time for someone to consider an advanced degree in Criminal Justice?

Simply because the world of criminal justice is becoming more complex—and it has been for a long time. Criminal justice was thought of as a low-tech, working man’s kind of job—and I say man because it was mostly male. Now, it’s perhaps one of the few occupations where its practitioners have to be adept in so many different areas. They have to inherently have certain abilities—dealing with criminals, with children, with the mentally ill, dealing with technology. The job is no longer one where someone can have a high school diploma or leave the military and do this job for the next 30 years. It’s a constant learning environment.

What interests you most about teaching CJ 515: Applied Research Methods for Criminal Justice?

It’s the way of obtaining information about crime and formulating policy using the best information available. So much of what we’ve done in criminal justice is because it seemed like a good idea at the time, or because it’s what the voters wanted done. That’s time and money into initiatives that didn’t work. I always thought that if we relied on scientific information as the basis for our policy, we would be going down a much stronger track. Evidence-based practice. It’s a buzzword, sure, but I firmly believe when we ground what we’re doing in information in a value-free way, it’s hard to go wrong.

Professor Don Hummer teaches CJ 515: Applied Research Methods for Criminal Justice for USC’s Online MS in Criminal Justice program.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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