Interview with Assistant Professor Katie Durante, University of Utah, Department of Sociology

Interview with Assistant Professor Katie Durante, University of Utah, Department of Sociology

1. If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?

Integrity, light-hearted, responsible

2. Can you discuss some of your key findings regarding racial and ethnic inequality in the criminal legal system and how it has evolved over the years?

One of the areas of research I focus on is racial and ethnic inequality in prison sentences and admissions. In terms of sentencing, my research has found that when analyzing hundreds of counties across the United States, Black and Latinx defendants receive slightly longer sentences than their White counterparts, even when accounting for offense type, previous criminal history, and other relevant factors. Further, I find that Black defendants are sentenced longer than White defendants in counties with a higher percentage of Republican voters. This is interesting because, in terms of prison admissions, I find that a higher percentage of Republican voters is associated with less Black-White racial disparity. This seems counterintuitive, especially since there is less racial disparity in prison admissions in the Southeastern United States—another finding. However, this is because these states have the highest incarceration rates in the country and the world. To lead the world in incarceration, conservative, Southeastern states admit many White people to prison too, leading to less racial disparity. Over the years, my research has expanded to look at families dealing with the incarceration of a loved one. Race and ethnicity must be centered in this research as well, as any findings on the effects of incarceration disproportionately impact Black families. A central idea to all of my research is that incarceration is driven by, and drives, racial inequality in the United States.

3. What is your stance on the death penalty, and how does your research contribute to the debate surrounding it?

I support abolishing the death penalty. There is a lot of evidence that death sentences are disproportionately given to people with mental illness, who are otherwise incapacitated, and who are low-income and racially minoritized. Additionally, since 1973 about 200 people have been exonerated, indicating that mistakes have been made. The criminal legal system has flaws, and I do not believe we can or should trust the state to kill. This is different from taking a moral stance. I cannot speak to whether some individuals “deserve” to be executed. What I can speak to is all the data that suggest the death penalty is flawed, biased, expensive, and fails to deter crime.

4. Can you discuss any current research findings on the intersection of drugs and criminal behavior?

As a sociologist, my research on drugs has been more focused on law and policy and less focused on behavior. What I can say is that, since states began to legalize cannabis in 2012, several studies have examined whether adult recreational use legalization has impacted crime rates. The findings are inconsistent, with no clear patterns of changes in crime emerging. Taken together, they suggest that recreational cannabis legalization has not led to an increase in crime and may not impact crime much at all. Notably, this is still a fairly new area of research and these findings might change in the future.

Relatedly, some of the research I have taken part in has found that cannabis legalization has not led to a substantial reduction in racial disparities in prison incarceration in Washington or Colorado. Likewise, other researchers have found that racial disparities in who is arrested for cannabis continue. However, on a positive note, cannabis legalization has led to a massive reduction in cannabis-related arrests (i.e., even though racial disparities persist) which is promising given the many negative consequences associated with having a criminal record.

5. The use of social media for advocacy has become increasingly prevalent. How can academics effectively use platforms like Twitter or Instagram to engage with the public and policymakers about issues related to race, punishment, and criminal justice?

I believe that social media can be transformative. It allows students, academics, other researchers, and the general public to connect with like-minded people, learn about opportunities, and create collaborations. It also, as suggested, allows individuals to connect with lawmakers directly– many of whom use Twitter/ X and other social media platforms. I think it is important that researchers share our findings broadly, and this includes disseminating them on social media. Additionally, I would also encourage researchers to share policy-relevant research with the public in other modalities if possible, such as writing op-eds or letters to the editors of their local newspapers. This approach has, in some ways, brought my ideas to the larger public more than any academic research article can (which often hides behind paywalls). Speaking out using different forms of media– social media, op-eds– during legislative sessions is a way to have your voice heard and hopefully influence public policy. Empirical, peer-reviewed research plays an important role because it informs and gives legitimacy to the positions that we take.

6. In your opinion, what are some of the most pressing issues that criminologists should focus on in the coming years?

This is a great question and I should start by saying that the answer could easily change based on the day or recent events. The greatest challenge in my opinion is the changing landscape of higher education and attacks on academic freedom. We must continue to fight for academic freedom, even when our findings are unpopular or not what governments, the public, or our colleagues want them to be. Further, we must fight to be able to discuss controversial issues and research in our classrooms without fear of punishment, and that includes talking about issues regarding race, gender, sexuality, and other ideas that have been under attack. All of these ideas are central to issues regarding crime and the criminal legal system and we must not cower.

Another concern is data openness and accessibility. We must continue to lobby police agencies, correctional agencies, and other criminal legal, and governmental institutions to make their data accessible to researchers. So many questions regarding crime and the criminal legal system are hard to answer because of a lack of data availability. Or, when data are available, the process to access them is complicated, lengthy, and political. We need to work toward streamlining data access and further, encouraging researchers to share their data when possible. This issue will only become more pressing as more and more data are collected via modern technologies.

Finally, a great challenge for all researchers is the dissemination of research findings. Open-access publishing is expensive. Most social scientists do not have the funds to pay for open access. Therefore, most social science research is not accessible to the public because it is not free. We see a similar structure in the news media, where the best sources of news are inaccessible to the public while misinformation, social media, and low-quality “news” sites are free. Our ideas and research are only relevant if people can read them.

7. Can you share the role your family has played in your academic and professional journey, and in what ways has your background or family experiences influenced your work? Do you have any sociologists in your family?

I was the first person in my family to attend and graduate from a bachelor’s degree-granting university (#firstgen). I have no academics in my family, and certainly no sociologists. I think there is something special about sociology– with the emphasis on social problems, power dynamics, race, gender, class, and more–  that allows first-generation students and people from historically underrepresented groups to find a place in academia as undergraduate students.

8. What books or resources would you recommend to students interested in topics like race, punishment, and family impacts of incarceration?

I love this question, but there are so many to choose from! One of the books most influential to me when I was a student, and that I still have my students read today, is Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis. Other classics that anyone interested in issues of race and punishment should read include Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and Punished by Victor Rios. A great, classic book on familial incarceration is Megan Comfort’s Doing Time Together. This is a must-read for anyone interested in imprisonment and/or ethnography.

9. Are there any lessons or insights from your own career that you wish you had known when you were starting out in the field?

We can only control what we can control. It is well-known that academia is a hard industry to find success in. It is also no secret that there is a lot of inequality in terms of opportunity, resources, and prestige, which can be challenging for folks who did not attend the most resourced or well-connected universities (i.e., often first-generation students and students from historically underrepresented groups). However, we have a lot of control over our own research output and record, which is what I would encourage people to focus on instead of things external to us that we cannot control. I would also encourage folks starting out to build their network and seek mentoring. If you do not advocate for yourself, no one will.


Dear Readers,

We extend our sincere gratitude to Katie Durante for participating in our “Meet the Professor” initiative by Sociology Group. If you would like to suggest any professors for interviewing, please write to us. To learn more about how to participate in our “Meet the Professor” Insight Interview Series, please refer to this article: Link to the Article.

Thank you for your continued support!

Read: Interview with Dr. Christina Jackson: Insights into Sociology, Activism, and the Journey Ahead

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