Criminal Justice Students Foster Community Connections
Mississippi has one of the highest adult incarceration rates in the nation. The Pew Charitable Trusts has reported that the prison population in the state has grown by over 300% during the past three decades, a rate that far outstrips Mississippi’s rate of population growth. According to the Sentencing Project, blacks in Mississippi are incarcerated at a rate that is 3.5 times higher than whites.
The corrections system is by nature isolated from the fabric of social institutions in the wider community. Future criminal justice practitioners in CJ 390: Service- Learning in Criminal Justice had the opportunity to bridge that gap by exploring their role as individuals while volunteering with several community organizations in Oxford and Lafayette County.
Associate Professor of Legal Studies, Dr. Linda Keena, created this course because of her conviction that service-learning can be especially beneﬁcial for studying criminal justice. “Service-learning may be more important in criminal justice than other areas of study because it connects classroom learning to the real-life criminal justice system,” she explained. “Service in all three subsystems – ﬁre/police, courts, and corrections – encourages students to question their preconceptions, examine their assumptions, observe the connectedness of community partners, and gain vital ﬁeld experience.”
Students in CJ 390 completed a minimum of 25 service hours at various nonproﬁt organizations, including the American Red Cross, Boys and Girls Club, Family Exchange Center, Mississippi State Veterans Home, Oxford-Lafayette Humane Society, and the Oxford Fire Department. While each of these organizations addresses a different community need, the class came together to share observations and reﬂections on the interconnectedness of these institutions in serving the broader Oxford-Lafayette County community.
As they engaged with these community organizations, students gained an appreciation of the extent to which nonproﬁt organizations depend on volunteers and ﬁnancial donations. In her ﬁnal paper, one student wrote: “I never understood how much effort it took to run a humane society, and I was completely unaware that they were nonproﬁt; they function solely from volunteers and donations.” This observation was echoed by students who served at various community organizations.
One of the course objectives was to open students’ eyes to the diversity that exists in society, and how this impacts community needs and solutions. One student who completed his service-learning hours with the Oxford Fire Department observed the following: “I didn’t know there were so many people experiencing poverty, especially in Oxford. The ﬁreﬁghters told me that the low-income people are really subjected to more ﬁres because they can’t afford safe heating and air conditioning. They live in trailer homes that burn fast and drive vehicles that are so damaged they burn quicker.” In reﬂecting on poverty and race in his community, this student wrote, “I’m glad the ﬁre department is professional. It doesn’t discriminate between afﬂuent people and those who aren’t, or the blacks and the whites.”
New criminology research suggests that growing income inequality in the United States is linked to public policies that have resulted in mass incarceration. It is imperative, then, that students of criminal justice develop a nuanced understanding of the social forces that result in intergenerational poverty, and how incarceration relates to social mobility.
One student mentored juveniles participating in the Adolescent Offender Program with the Family Exchange Center. Throughout the course, the student worked to break down barriers with the youth as he simultaneously grappled with his own preconceived notions of youth in the correctional system. “I noticed, too, that my attitude towards the juvenile had changed,” he wrote. “I no longer thought of the juveniles as bad, evil criminals. Instead, I saw them as troubled kids.”
Much of this learning stems from the emphasis on reﬂection in the service-learning course design. As they progressed through the course, students were prompted to record their evolving thought processes on their service experience, intellectual inquiry, and personal beliefs. In the ﬁnal paper, one student shared: “Reﬂection played a big role in my service-learning project. I did not realize my growth while completing the project until I read over my reﬂections…if it was not for the reﬂection process, I would have never seen my growth.” These regular reﬂection journals and prompts served as a yardstick for students to measure their evolution throughout the course. This can be a powerful exercise, particularly when students move outside their comfort zone.
Another dimension of the reﬂection process allowed students to gain insights about their desired for me. My last day at the center, I knew I wanted to continue to work with the juveniles. I felt a sense of accomplishment being there.”
“My students really beneﬁted from the course,” remarked Dr. Keena. “They got to witness authentic criminal processes and practices. The ﬁeld experience required them to take ownership of their own learning, by challenging them to reﬂect on their misconceptions and predetermined attitudes. Participating students were able to form their own conclusions based on the realities they witnessed rather than media or biased reports.”
In addition, the community partners beneﬁted from the service learners. Fred Johnson, Executive Director of the Family Exchange Center, noted that “the students were so valuable because we used them to provide much-needed programming to the offenders.” Staff at the Boys and Girls Club highlighted the mutually beneﬁcial exchange of knowledge in reﬂecting that “we learned as much from the students as they learned from us.”
Through the service-learning experience, students honed their skills as future criminal justice practitioners both in and out of the classroom. The students felt connected not only to the youth and the staff, but also to the broader community. This can combat the perception that college students are isolated from the community at large, while providing much-needed support to under-resourced community organizations.
For more information about CJ 390, contact Dr. Linda Keena at (662) 915-1998 or firstname.lastname@example.org.