Researchers: Hung-En Sung, Verónica Michel, Lila Kazemian, Anru Lee, Deborah Koetzle, Jeff Mellow
Author: Michael Friedrich
With a decades-long track record of advancing justice policy and practice in the U.S., John Jay College of Criminal Justice has an internationally recognized reputation in the field. Now, the college is increasingly taking its work global. A new International Research Partnerships office, launched by the Office for the Advancement of Research, is building relationships and contributing to justice innovations across borders.
“When it comes to criminal justice, we have one of the most international faculty bodies in the entire country,” said Dr. Hung-En Sung, director of the new office. “There’s no other institution in the country that can do what we do. We have whatever you can imagine, from crime-fighting to justice administration, criminalistics, forensic psychology and accounting, cyber security, and organized-crime studies, which is unique.”
“We are the leader in anything a country needs to improve its justice system.”
John Jay has long worked with institutions and governments internationally on studies, fieldwork, and piloting innovative policy. As this work expanded in recent years, the college saw an opportunity to share its expertise. Under Sung’s leadership, the International Research Partnerships office is harnessing the skills and talents of the college’s research community to help make greater real-world impact and provide benefits to justice systems internationally. “We are the leader in anything a country needs to improve its justice system,” he said.
The office is connecting faculty with competitive international funding opportunities from institutions like the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank. It also provides a specialized Spanish course to help facilitate researchers’ work in Latin America, with a focus on language skills that support project management and criminal justice processes. Sung’s ongoing survey of faculty researchers is compiling information on John Jay’s international projects, past research experience, and languages spoken to create a comprehensive database of resources that the college has to offer.
These resources run deep, and the new office will bolster a research portfolio exploring everything from fairness in Latin American criminal justice processes to rehabilitation in French prisons to Taiwanese urban development.
FAIR PROSECUTION One researcher who has benefited from the International Research Partnerships office’s support is Associate Professor Dr. Verónica Michel, who studies victims’ rights, public prosecutors’ offices, criminal procedure reform, and the rule of law in Latin America. Michel has spent much of her career looking at the ways that victims and their families can participate in criminal prosecutions against agents of the state in Chile, Guatemala, and Mexico in cases of homicide, disappearance, and extrajudicial killing. In particular, she examines criminal procedure reforms that allowed survivors to use private prosecutors. This can be an improvement over public prosecutors in contexts where they lack resources like finances, state support, and security, which can prevent the pursual of meaningful investigations.
“Private prosecution helps cases either remain open or reach trial,” Michel said. “It opens a door of opportunity for the victims or the relatives to have their day in court.” Her research became the basis for a book, Prosecutorial Accountability and Victims’ Rights in Latin America, which argues that the right to private prosecution can play an important role in creating state accountability, thereby promoting confidence in the legal system and the rule of law.
Today, Michel is working with John Jay professors Dr. Deborah Koetzle and Dr. Jeff Mellow on two projects financed by the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. The projects are being implemented in partnership with Joel Capellan from Rowan University and the University Institute of Public Opinion (Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública) in El Salvador, a partnership that is the result of connections that Sung’s office helped her develop. “We are building John Jay’s reputation as the premier institution for criminal justice, education and reform in Latin America,” Sung said.
Michel’s project will examine the transition in four Latin American countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama—from an inquisitorial legal system to an accusatorial system of justice, and the project directed by Koetzle and Mellow will develop critical rule of law indicators for the correctional system. In a synergistic collaboration, they will survey incarcerated individuals to learn about their life in prison and to understand whether the transition to an accusatorial system has changed their perceptions of procedural justice—in other words, their belief that the system treats them fairly.
Michel hopes that her work will demonstrate the effects of judicial reform in Latin America, leading to fairer real-world justice practices. In small experiments it has been shown that “people who go through inquisitorial proceedings tend to perceive the process to be less fair when compared to people who have a case in an adversarial proceeding,” Michel said. “In theory, we should see an improvement in perceptions of procedural justice, or how fair they think the process was.”
REDEMPTION IN PRISON John Jay’s institutional growth has allowed it to apply faculty research to other important questions of justice abroad, not just about fairness in the legal system but also redemption for those in custody. Dr. Lila Kazemian, a professor in the Sociology Department, has done extensive fieldwork in French prisons. She focuses on the process of change among incarcerated individuals and the ways in which prison can either promote or hamper positive transformation. She also examines how their experiences prepare them for reintegration into their communities upon release. Her research, which started with interviews in a prison on the outskirts of Paris and expanded throughout the country, is detailed in her book Positive Growth and Redemption in Prison.
“I didn’t want to conduct another study that highlighted the negative effects of incarceration, because there’s ample empirical evidence on this topic,” Kazemian said. “I like to focus on resilience and positive growth. What are the characteristics of people who manage to change for the better despite being in an environment that’s not necessarily conducive to positive transformation?”
Kazemian found that transformation is possible, both in prison and after release, despite the significant barriers posed by the prison system. But the process requires tremendous motivation, willpower, and resilience on the part of incarcerated people. Many of the men in her study had experienced extensive trauma and abuse over the course of their lives. On top of this, many faced structural barriers like economic inequality, racial and ethnic marginalization, and mental health challenges—not to mention the significant hurdles that are imposed by the prison system. Those who achieved desistance from crime and transformed their lives shared some common features: they used adversity as a springboard for growth, took responsibility for harms they had caused in the past, constructively confronted past trauma, and regarded themselves as individuals worthy of a happy life.
Fostering conditions that provide opportunities for redemption is deeply important, and Kazemian’s research supports efforts to expand such practices. “The treatment of prisoners is a human rights issue, but it’s also a pragmatic issue,” she said. “We know that about 95 percent of prisoners are eventually released. In what state do we want them to return to society?”
Funded by a grant from the Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York and a fellowship with the City of Paris, Kazemian is now preparing to examine these issues in New York State prisons.
TRANSIT AND NATIONAL IDENTITY International research at John Jay is not confined to the subject of criminal justice. Dr. Anru Lee, a professor in John Jay’s Anthropology Department, has brought special expertise to probing the effects on Taiwanese citizens as the country modernizes its mass transit system. “When you build new urban infrastructure, how does that affect the behavior of city residents? By extension, how does that change the culture of a city? And how does that change the way that the residents of that particular city look at themselves?”
“Scientific evidence can guide us through the maze of social problems and identify solutions to those problems.”
Lee studied the behaviors of citizens of Taipei as they became familiar with the city’s metro system since it began opening stations in the late 1990s. At first, the Taiwanese government implemented rules to keep the subway clean and orderly. For example, riders are fined for eating and drinking, and are encouraged to give seats to people in need. But Lee said that, over time, those behaviors have taken on a life of their own, and observing the rules has become integrated into a sense of national identity.
Lee’s research is a powerful example of the way John Jay faculty use their research to help governments around the globe to understand nuanced processes of social change. “It started with a government campaign to teach citizens how to behave in certain ways on the subway,” she said. “What I’m finding now is that people actually take pride in how they observe all those regulations and rules, and at times they will also stop other passengers who violate the rules.”
Lee said Taipei’s mass transit system serves two functions, one economic and the other symbolic. Its economic role is to connect the city’s neighborhoods, helping to attract young cultural workers and making the city competitive in the global market. In its broad symbolic role, however, it helps to identify Taiwan as a nation and polity of its own, independent of China—a political status not recognized by China or the majority of the international community. “The Taiwanese can see themselves on the global stage via the Taipei Metro,” Lee said. In the coming years, she plans to publish a book detailing her findings on the Taipei Metro and other new mass transit systems in the Asia Pacific region.
A major contribution of John Jay’s talent to the policy and practice of the region, that project worked with decision makers in the criminal justice system and aimed to promote the use of data in formulating public policy. “Scientific evidence can guide us through the maze of social problems and identify solutions to those problems,” Sung said.
Over three years, the program recruited 48 security and justice professionals each year from 12 agencies—including police, prosecutors, judges, and court administrators—to learn with researchers in El Salvador. Participants were expected to design policy interventions for social problems in their region, given a small grant of around $30,000, and asked to implement those interventions in trials that included evaluation. In the end, the program graduated over 150 participants and implemented over 30 policy experiments. In January 2020, John Jay President Karol Mason visited El Salvador to sign a collaborative agreement with the National Academy of Public Safety (ANSP) and the José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA).
These collaborations underline the spirit that spurred the launch of John Jay’s International Research Partnerships office, which draws from the college’s repository of knowledge to support policymakers across the globe in addressing their most pressing social problems—without imposing on them American ideas about a “good society,” Sung said.
“Because of our technical expertise and experiences in research and capacity-building, we can play a supporting role in helping them achieve the political and institutional goals that they define. That fundamental change can trigger transformations on the ground.”
Feature: Jing Jing Tsong