Rebekah Jones ’20 grew up in Queens, New York, observing the everyday lives of New Yorkers. This sparked her enthusiasm for social science research. After completing a social science research-oriented program in high school, Jones applied to Cornell University to major in Development Sociology. Jamila Michener’s government course Prisons, Politics, and Policy further piqued Jones’ interest in criminal justice reform, and she began researching incarceration structures.
“I was acquainted, through moot courts and other activities in high school, with the legal nature of public policy, but working with Professor Michener allowed me to understand specific research-based aspects of the field,” Jones says.
Fixed on Research
Jones’ initial research experience with Thomas Hirschl, Development Sociology, involved searching for a corroboration between rising homicide rates and poverty. The project, which Jones credits for giving her with a full introduction to research methodology, transitioned into a paper—pending publication.
Later Jones worked with Professor Michener on a project focused on understanding the context in which communities respond to police violence. In the fall semester of her junior year, Jones furthered her research experience in Buenos Aires, Argentina—a program initiated by the School of International Training. During the latter portion of the term, Jones volunteered at the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), a leading Argentine think tank.
At CELS, Jones evaluated mass incarceration issues in Argentina through the lens of human rights violations. She says, “Argentina has had massive episodes of human rights violations in the past, and the country’s past informs how discussions of crime and punishment are constructed. The country’s rise of incarceration has led many to highlight the similarities to periods of authoritarianism.” Jones conducted myriad qualitative interviews and analytical research to highlight the lack of health services available to female prisoners in the federal prison system of the country.
Further engaging her interest in incarceration studies, Jones enrolled at the University of Arizona’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Consortium (UROC) 2019 summer program. Over the course of the summer in Tucson, Arizona, she researched the programming of mental health courts—a specialized judicial institution, which purports to provide individuals with mental health issues access to rehabilitative services rather than the traditional punitive court processing. A key point of Jones’ research was investigating the disputed link between mental health courts and recidivism rates. As she posits in her government honors thesis, mental health courts may ultimately be a well-intentioned, yet ineffective way of tackling crime and mass incarceration.
Modern theories on criminal justice fall under two overarching approaches. Jones explains, “The first is criminalization theory, which emphasizes the effect of drug dependency and mental illness on crime. This is the theory driving the establishment of mental health courts nationwide. The second approach, termed normalization theory, attributes the incidence of crime to eight criminogenic risk factors, including employment status and anti-social tendencies. It argues that offenders with mental illness are normal in that they tend to exhibit the same criminogenic factors as traditional offenders.”
Based on her research in Arizona, Jones is inclined to agree with normalization theory’s causal hypothesis. As her analysis suggested, targeted approaches to address mental illness do not necessarily cause a decrease in recidivism rates. “In fact,'' she argues, “there is reason to believe that a mental health court that concurrently works to address these criminogenic factors such as education, employment, and antisocial behavior might have a more direct impact on reducing recidivism rates.”
Analyzing Mental Health Courts—Tucson and Ithaca
Jones will expand her senior thesis research by conducting a comparison between her findings at the mental health court in Tucson with those at a newly-established court in Ithaca, New York. “The similar operational structures of the mental health courts—both deal with a range of criminal issues and prescribe varied mental illness treatments—set up a natural comparison,” she explains. Tompkins County, however, remains an anomaly in Upstate New York, as other districts are yet to establish mental health courts. Jones argues that because other districts are unwilling to follow this model, the success or failure of Ithaca’s court is especially crucial. “The court’s performance could influence perceptions of criminalization-derived approaches across the region. But we still don’t know if it works,” she says.
Even the courts themselves remain unsure of the effectiveness of their methods. The complexity of Jones’ research is compounded because the Tucson mental health court, established in 1998, lacks a basic system for monitoring and evaluating the rehabilitation or recidivism of past felons. Similarly, a majority of the roughly 350 mental health courts across the country do not know their own efficacy. In the absence of comprehensive rehabilitation data, Jones will conduct interviews with court-related officials as well as felon participants in order to assess success over time.
“For instance, I will use the interviews to evaluate the efficiency of court practices like the training of court staff and judges and will form methods of accountability with behavioral treatment services in the community,” Jones says.
“Social stigma toward mental illness within a particular community may be discouraging its members from pursuing treatment in mental health courts.”
Through her interviews with long-serving officials at the mental health court in Tucson, Jones developed an approach to analyzing mental health courts’ performance through the lens of equity. As she explains, “Social stigma toward mental illness within a particular community may be discouraging its members from pursuing treatment in mental health courts. Although treatment programs have improved from their low success rates, there is still room for improvement in generalized programs suited to specific conditions, in certain cases.” As an example, Jones will evaluate the court staff’s preparedness for assisting women who’ve been victims of sexual misconduct in the past.
Following the completion of her undergraduate degree, Jones will pursue PhD programs in political science. She wants to conduct incarceration-based research, as well as analyze comparative politics and the dynamics of social policy. Jones plans to focus on Latin American states—her interest driven by her experience in the region.
“I’m especially interested in exploring the interactions between vulnerable populations and the state and the possibility of integrating them better into society and the political sphere.” Jones, a McNair Scholar, has been chosen as an American Political Science Association Minority Fellow for 2020–2021.