For three decades, Nicole Rafter has, in her own words, helped “women, people of color and the poor benefit from criminal justice instead of being oppressed by it.”
Now, this senior research fellow in the area of criminal justice has been recognized for her life’s work. She’s received her field’s highest level of recognition for a senior scholar—the American Society of Criminology’s Edwin H. Sutherland Award.
“I’ve always been interested in social justice, and using criminology to make the world a better place,” says Rafter.
The Sutherland award, which Rafter received on Nov. 4 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Philadelphia, is “a validation of the kind of research I do,” she says.
She is only the second woman ever to have won the award.
Rafter joined the Northeastern faculty in 1977, and remained a full-time professor until 1998. In 2002, she rejoined the Northeastern community and now teaches graduate-level courses on the biological theories of crime, and crime films and society.
Decades of fieldwork on gender and justice, the history of biological theories on crime, and crime and film have led her to author a body of wide-ranging books.
In the early part of her career, during years of National Institute of Justice–funded research, Rafter noticed a pattern among incarcerated women. “Black women tended to be sent to state prisons,” she explains, “while white women were funneled out of the system and sent to rehab or women’s reformatories.”
The inequity inspired her to write “Partial Justice: Women in State Prisons,” published in 1985, which examines the women’s prison system since the late 18th century.
Rafter’s 1997 book, “Creating Born Criminals,” started out as her dissertation, and took 25 years to complete. It’s a study of the impact the American eugenics movement had on criminology and criminal justice beginning in the late 19th century. At the movement’s height in the early 1900s, Rafter reports, some people were institutionalized for life and prevented from reproducing simply because they scored poorly on IQ tests.
The Great Depression weakened the eugenics prison system, Rafter says, and a growing understanding of genetics put an end to it for good.
“States couldn’t afford this kind of ‘luxury’ anymore, and, more important, scientific advances had proved conclusively that there’s nothing like a crime gene, and nothing like a gene for mental retardation,” she notes.
In 1999, after Rafter left her full-time position at Northeastern to pursue her research more vigorously, she moved to Rome and learned enough Italian to co-translate two seminal books in the field of criminology—Cesare Lombroso’s “Criminal Man” and “Criminal Woman”—seeking to better understand the social history of crime and criminology since the 19th century.
Her next book, an examination of how criminal theories are played out in films, “Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society,” was published in 2000. For research, she watched roughly 400 movies.
“Many people pick up key ideas about what justice means and what crime is from movies,” Rafter says, adding that films also tell convincing stories about how the criminal justice system works.
Rafter is currently writing a follow-up book, “Criminology Goes to the Movies.” Although most film directors aren’t familiar with criminological theories, she says, their films often present criminological ideas in hyper-compelling ways, bringing them to life for students.
“Criminal justice students might fall asleep during a lecture on social disorganization,” she says. But movies “transmit theories and help students learn.” More than that, “they shape our consciousness of violation and justice.”
Rafter, who’s already thinking about her next project—a book tracing the history of the field of criminal justice—says she has maintained two goals throughout her career: “To correct misperceptions, and to say something I think is valuable.”
The Edwin H. Sutherland Award goes to scholars who make an outstanding contribution to criminology theory or research. Sutherland, who died in 1950, was a sociologist and criminologist widely known for his theories on crime and delinquency.