Discretion and Formality in Law:
Sociology Research Practicum Connects Concepts to Action
Nika Kabiri, Gretchen Ludwig (Sociology)
One of the major issues in law and in sociology is how to devise laws or policies that are formal enough to ensure that similarly situated individuals are treated the same. If laws are vague, or if they leave too much room for interpretation by law enforcers, then the chances are greater that enforcers will let their personal, subjective opinions sway the outcomes. However, if laws are too rigid, circumstances unique to each case may be overlooked, yielding unfair outcomes.
The ACLU Research Practicum deals directly with these concepts. Beginning in fall ‘08, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) asked sociology students to conduct a study surrounding racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests made after the passage of I-75 in 2003. I-75 made marijuana possession a “low priority”. But because “low priority” isn’t formally defined, police officers are now left to exercise their own discretion. Interestingly, since the passage of I-75, arrest rates for African Americans are disproportionately higher than for Whites. This begs the question: is too much informality in the law leading to unfair enforcement? This question led to a year-long study involving over 100 sociology undergraduates. Based on research results, the ACLU may use this information in their efforts to propose more formal standards for enforcement.
This session will demonstrate how a practicum learning approach can be the most effective way to connect theoretical concepts to real life problems. We will talk about the practicum model and research study in depth, including experiences and lessons learned in developing course curriculum, working with partners, and especially teaching undergraduate students how to be effective and thoughtful researchers. We will also discuss research design, methods and study results, with discussion on how the ACLU may use this information.