The College of Behavioral and Social Sciences congratulates Assistant Professor Rachel Ellis in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice on winning an emerging scholars pipeline grant from the Russell Sage Foundation (RSF) and the Economic Mobility and Opportunity program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Ellis’s project, supported by the nearly $30,000 grant, will examine the challenges that women face while on probation, with special attention to the role of gender and motherhood.
“For this project supported by the RSF, I will conduct interviews and ethnographic observations with probation officers and women on probation,” Ellis said.
Twenty-one awards were recently granted. The selected researchers, representing diverse fields, each focus on economic mobility and access to opportunity. This initiative supports early- and mid-career tenure-track scholars who are underrepresented in the social sciences in order to promote racial, ethnic, gender, disciplinary, institutional, and geographic diversity.
Reflecting on the impetus of this work, Ellis said, “The topic of punishment often conjures images of chain-link fences, guard towers, and razor wire. But probation is the single most common form of punishment in the United States today. What’s more, some studies have shown that women are more likely than men to be sentenced to probation rather than prison.”
As Ellis reviewed literature on the topic, she said she found surprisingly few qualitative studies on the probation experience overall, and especially among women.
“What are the everyday challenges that make probation more difficult for some than others? How do gender, race, and social class shape experiences of probation? What are the particular challenges that mothers face while on probation? In my study, interviews and ethnographic observations will illuminate how women navigate the conditions of probation, paying special attention to social support, stigma, and family dynamics,” Ellis said.
Public misconceptions about probation conditions abound, and Ellis said that she hopes to challenge them through her research.
“Probation conditions might sound straightforward: get a job, avoid alcohol and drugs, don’t associate with convicted felons, remain in the state at all times, report to a probation officer at regular intervals, and pay $50 a month. Follow the rules and successfully complete probation. Violate the rules and risk being sent to prison,” Ellis said. “In reality, probation violations are common, and the threat of incarceration looms large. One of the most frequent violations is failure to pay fees.”
Ellis said that a common misconception is that probation is a “slap on the wrist”—the reality is that probation is disproportionately harder for some people than others, due in part to systemic inequalities.
“The goal of my project is to learn about the day-to-day realities of a probation sentence, examining whether and how socioeconomic and racial inequalities matter for women’s lived experience of probation,” Ellis said.
This year, RSF Pipeline Grants prioritized research on the social consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Researchers in numerous fields have shed light on the public health threat posed by prisons.
“The coronavirus pandemic has exposed enduring vulnerabilities among justice-involved populations. There have been calls for a greater use of community supervision instead of incarceration,” Ellis said. “As with any criminal justice reform, we need to pay attention to what sort of punishment is proposed as a replacement. It is crucial to examine the potentially unequal impacts and unintended consequences of probation as punishment.”
Photo by Daniel Longest.