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.