Sarah Tahamont is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland's Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Here, she discusses her interest in corrections research and her long-term hopes for how her work might have real-world impact.
What drives your interest in criminal justice policy?
Corrections research has direct implications for policy, so it appeals to my inner policy work. Unlike so many of the other determinants of social disadvantage, the prison is an entirely policy-built environment. A better understanding of the effects of prison policies on inmate, staff and community outcomes can be used as evidence to motivate change in the criminal justice system.
Your dissertation was on the effect of correctional policies on inmate behavior. What is your current research and is it linked to work you did at GSPP?
I have two current projects that are linked to the dissertation work I did while I was at GSPP. The first is a more detailed implementation of the instrumental variables approach to estimating the effect of prison visits on inmate behavior that I used in my first dissertation paper. In my new project, I have individual level data on prison visits in New York State over time that includes detailed information about the visitors and can be linked to inmate's post-release arrests. It is an exciting project, because I will be able to follow inmates over time, delve into different types of visits, and look at the effects of visits on recidivism, which I did not have the data to do in my dissertation paper. I am also working on an interesting descriptive project that looks at the pathways of criminal justice contacts over time for a group of first time prison inmates. The goal is to better understand pathways of arrest prior to first imprisonment.
What do you see as some of the key leverage points related to improving corrections?
There are so many potentially key leverage points to reform incarceration practices in the United States. It would be impossible to list them all. One of the things I think we need to examine more closely is longer-term planning for reentry and reintegration. The vast majority of individuals sentenced to prison will return to the community. How do the correctional policies we have in place prepare individuals for release, whether it be 3, 5, 10 or 20 years down the road? Not only is there limited programming available to inmates, but there is also a dearth of evidence about the effects of those programs on inmate outcomes both during incarceration and post-release. This is especially true for higher education programs, which are often identified as key for reducing recidivism.
What might the real-world impact of your current research be for NY State and elsewhere?
My work is definitely motivated by policy questions directly, but in terms of the impact of my findings, having trained first as a policy analyst, I should say that I hope the real-world impact of my research operates through policy analysis. As we learned from Professor Gene Bardach, research findings alone are data or, at best, information (data with meaning), but hopefully policy analysts focused on identifying the optimal approaches to criminal justice policy choices will be able to use my research as evidence to inform real-world policy change. Given the numerous assumptions that go into quasi-experimental research, it makes me most comfortable to think that my research can contribute to a body of work that taken together can inform policy decisions through a preponderance of evidence. At least I can hope!