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Interdisciplinary Approach Fuels New SPIA Programs Linking Law, Criminal Justice, Public Policy

Mar 06 2024
By Anna Mazarakis

The School of Public and International Affairs has launched two new initiatives designed to bring an interdisciplinary approach to issues of law, criminal justice, and public policy: the Criminal Justice @ SPIA faculty cluster and the Program in Law & Public Policy, also known as P*LAW, which is part of the revamped Law@Princeton. 

Law@Princeton, a joint program of the University, the University Center for Human Values (UCHV), and SPIA, replaces the former Law and Public Affairs Program, or LAPA, which was founded in 1999 and indefinitely paused operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to P*LAW, Law@Princeton includes UHCV’s Program in Law and Normative Thinking.

According to Patrick Sharkey, the William S Tod Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, there hadn't previously been a collective effort on campus to form an intellectual community around issues that are related to crime, violence, policing, the criminal legal system, and related topics – despite a lot of great research on these issues from different corners of the University. A desire to create such a hub led to the cluster's founding in October, he said at a recent program that introduced Criminal Justice @ SPIA and its affiliated faculty members to a group of students, staff, faculty, and community members.

"There are a few goals of this initiative: One is to enhance the research that's going on around campus," Sharkey said. Another is "to start to build an intellectual community around research – as well as translating that research into policy initiatives."

The faculty involved with Criminal Justice @ SPIA have already made great strides in the field, launching research projects including AmericanViolence.org (Sharkey), the Center on Transnational Policing (Laurence Ralph), Research on Policing Reform and Accountability (Jonathan Mummolo), and an investigation into the effects of organized crime on economic development (Maria Micaela Sviatschi).

The work of this faculty cluster also connects to SPIA’s Making an Exoneree course, in which undergraduate student groups take up the case of wrongfully convicted and imprisoned individuals, and the Policy Advocacy Clinic, both of which launched last year.

Udi Ofer, the John L. Weinberg Visiting Professor and Lecturer of Public and International Affairs as well as the Policy Advocacy Clinic founder, is the sole overlapping faculty member between the two new SPIA programs. His clinic students have submitted reports and recommendations to the United Nations in Geneva, worked with members of Congress on policy and data analysis, including on sentencing disparities in drug laws, and produced a police accountability campaign plan for advocates in New Jersey as well as analyses of police internal affairs data. While these students are not part of the Criminal Justice @ SPIA faculty cluster, the program's manager, Emily Eckart, noted that the cluster is a good way for them to learn about faculty members with whom they could potentially work on independent research.

Criminal Justice @ SPIA is distinct from the Program in Law and Public Policy, said P*Law Director Deborah Pearlstein, the Charles and Marie Robertson Visiting Professor in Law and Public Affairs.

"Criminal justice is obviously one incredibly important field of legal study, but law shapes virtually every major policy question we face - from international conflict and climate regulation to democracy, expression, and reproductive health,” Pearlstein said. “Our program engages interdisciplinary scholars and practitioners on questions of law across a range of fields."

As LAPA did, P*LAW hosts visiting law faculty fellows, holds workshops and other events, and provides an interdisciplinary hub for legal research on campus. Unlike LAPA, P*LAW is more policy-focused. "In some respects it's a startup, in other respects it follows in a great tradition of law programs past," said Pearlstein. 

Pearlstein is pioneering a new series of "problem-solving workshops," engaging visiting fellows in extending their research interests to work on a particular problem in law and policy, such as free speech on social media.

"We bring together an interdisciplinary group of high-level people not only to talk about how we define the problem, but also to brainstorm possible solutions and think about implementation in a day-long set of workshops,” she said. “It is an opportunity both to learn languages of each other's disciplines and to better inform policymaking and decision making on a very specific kind of question.”

Though P*LAW is not a degree program, Pearlstein said that she and other faculty members are advising undergraduate independent research related to legal studies, and there are at least eight law-related courses listed on SPIA's website this spring. 

For these two nascent programs, representatives said that success will come in the form of elevated legal scholarship that is better informed by the interdisciplinary research they were designed to foster. Faculty and student interest in participating in them, as well as interest from the community in benefitting from the research, has already fueled more development and growth of both P*LAW and Criminal Justice @ SPIA.

"The pent-up interest in the law here at Princeton is overwhelming in the best sense," Pearlstein said.