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Alexes Harris | A Multi-State Study Using Multi-methods: Making Sense of Justice Sentencing

August 19, 2019

Alexes Harris is a Presidential Term Professor of Department of Sociology at University of Washington and obtained her Ph.D. in Sociology from University of California, Los Angeles. As an author of A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor, she examined the relationship between the United States’ systems of social control and inequality. Dr. Harris’s research focuses on social stratification processes and racial and ethnic disparities. Also, she investigates how varying institutions impact individuals’ life-chances using mixed-method approaches.

Understudied topic: Monetary Sanctions

Dr. Harris has been interested in the research topic of monetary sanctions or legal financial obligations (LFOs) for 13 years. She pointed out that the topic of monetary sanctions is understudied in the legal system, but that it has dramatic consequences particularly for poor people. In her early research, she conducted collaborative research on fines and fees with two professors in the UW Sociology Department and found that the monetary sanction system is a national phenomenon, and that the amount of imposed fees is growing. In her book, Dr. Harris collected sentencing data, legal documents, observations of court hearings, and interviews with defendants, judges, prosecutors, and other court officials from five counties across Washington to understand how the processes work. She discovered that LFOs, subjectively imposed at great discretion by judges and court clerks, varied across jurisdictions.

Expanding the Project to the National Level

From 2014 to 2020, with funding from Arnold Ventures, Dr. Harris expanded her project to other states in the United States with her Dream Team of collaborators in Missouri, New York, Illinois, Texas, Georgia, California, and Minnesota. The team first triangulated the data to understand the institutional process of monetary sanctions, which included interviews/survey, court observations, and automated court data. The methodologies that the team used in the project are textual analysis, interviews, surveys, court ethnography, and statistical analysis.

In the first year of the project, the team identified the layers of jurisdictions present in each state. The team had conversations and reviewed census data to figure out what would be the best counties to focus on in each state, taking into consideration factors such as racial and ethnic diversity and population size, local statutes, and policies to understand the legal contexts. During the second year, the team developed interview protocols and surveys, and carried out interviews with 950 people including debtors, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. In the third and fourth years, they gathered over 200 hours of court observations within each state and cleaned the data to compare in cross-state analyses.

Interview and Project Management Logistics

Dr. Harris also explained the logistics related to the management of the research team. Managing a team of 80 collaborators including faculty members and Ph.D. research assistants, while creating an equitable decision-making process, research outcomes, and work load required an immense amount of coordination and communication. The project team made sure that everyone had a general sense of how to interpret the interview code books. Some team members were unfamiliar with ethnographic research tools, so educational and training tools were created to benefit the group. With respect to project management, Dr. Harris emphasized the importance of team collaboration, conversations, and fair decision-making processes to build a cohesive research community. She also gave detailed information on Institutional Review Board (IRB) processes, grant management, developing authorship guidelines, and working with a private foundation.

This work will culminate in five cross-state analysis papers with a variety of lead authors, many single-state papers, two dedicated volumes in a journal, and a number of spin-off projects. Dr. Harris is studying how monetary sanctions generate chronic and acute stress for people who are poor by using mostly the interview data with her research assistant right now. Lastly, she ended her presentation by showing her special thanks to Research Assistants at U.W. who contributed to the code books, data collection, project management, and the development of papers.