Meet a Lucerna Author: Sarah Towakoli

My Lucerna project is “Ending the Recidivist Cycle: The Reciprocal Effect of Punitive Correctional Procedures on Incarceration.” In short, it’s about the paradox of U.S. Corrections and its failure to “correct” offenders. My study focuses on the philosophy and practices of the U.S. correctional system and applies it to research on incarceration and recidivism in the United States. Most importantly, it explains how these procedures actually aggravate incarceration and recidivism rates, ultimately victimizing those who become entangled with the criminal justice system as well as imposing and perpetuating harms onto society. Finally, the piece offers a suggestion for reformation in the form of a replacement of current correctional procedures with evidence-based programs that answer to the cognitive-behavioral risks and needs of offenders to support a healthy, successful, and just reintegration.

Why are you interested in this topic?

Recidivism is something criminology students are made aware in the first few criminal justice courses, but it was never taught to me as a section on its own. I immediately noticed the irony of living in a country that holds both the highest incarceration and highest recidivism rates worldwide. After taking a course on the principles of U.S. Corrections, I noticed that criminological scholarship tends to address recidivism as being a side-effect, or symptom, to an ineffective system. After considering just how prevalent the issue of recidivism is, I realized recidivism is not symptomatic per se, but a leading cause of the entire disease that plagues the justice system. Certainly a justice system would be hard-pressed to achieve true justice if it simply re-incarcerated the same offenders without making any changes; it turns offenders into victims of an unjust system. This project was an opportunity to learn more about it myself, and to try to locate where we can start transforming the way we think about or prioritize recidivism to try to overcome this issue.

What have been the benefits and challenges of this project?

The only challenge to the project was ensuring that the end product was truly a contribution, or a new idea, to the preexisting scholarship. As challenging as this was, it was also really rewarding and fun to push myself to think about my project from several different facets. I had started learning about this topic during the start of my sophomore year, and I remember completely scrapping everything I had worked on for an entire semester and starting fresh after realizing I was initially looking at the issue incorrectly. Therefore, this project was really a culmination of all of the knowledge I had gained in this field thus far, as well as the critical thinking and analytical research strategies I had developed along the way. I would now consider that to be a benefit, along with the many other benefits to pursuing this project. While there really are several benefits to submitting a project to Lucerna, admittedly my favorite is getting to hold an actual published copy after spending so many hours staring at rough drafts on my computer.

What is your advice for students who are interested in publishing their work in Lucerna?

Do it. Even if you are not sure what project you want to pursue, pick a category you are interested in and just start the research for it. When you finally find the specific topic you are passionate about, the project starts to write itself. It is very rare that undergraduate students will have the opportunity to publish our own independent research, so I would encourage any and all students to take advantage of it.

What are your professional plans or goals?

I plan to start writing my Senior Honors Thesis in May of 2019. I will continue that project until May of 2020, when I will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice and Criminology, Political Science, and a minor in Spanish. I hope to attend law school that following fall semester. I have goals to continue independent research, further my overall understanding of the Criminal Justice System, and use what I have yet to learn in areas such as criminal law, criminal justice reform, public policy, and beyond. I have several goals I hope to accomplish, but they do not all fall in the same category. I have spent the last three years working on the Steering Committee for the UMKC-FBI Student Academy, which has brought several opportunities I never considered before, so my biggest goal of all is to keep an open mind and use my education to make a positive, lasting difference in any endeavors or path I end up taking.