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In Memory: Nicole Rafter

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Nicole (Nicky) Hahn Rafter

Nicky Rafter, a long-time professor of Criminal Justice and senior research fellow at Northeastern University and an internationally-revered scholar in the fields of social history and criminology, passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly, on February 29, 2016 at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston.

Guided by a methodology of comparative social history, Nicky’s eclectic research and scholarship explored mechanisms of social control, representations of crime, eugenics, biological theories of crime, and the history of criminology. Nicky’s love of historical criminological research was born when her dissertation research on the punishment of “defective delinquents,” while a doctoral student at SUNY-Albany, brought her to the nearly-undiscovered world of state prison archives. A few years later she returned to those archives to analyze reports produced by prison matrons in the early to mid-1900s and authored the authoritative history of women’s imprisonment in Gender, Prisons and Prison History (1985) and Partial Justice: Women, Prisons and Social Control (1990). Nicky’s ground-breaking research on gender and punishment emerged alongside, was supported by, and helped cultivate the field of feminist criminology. Not surprisingly, Nicky was instrumental in the creation of the American Society of Criminology’s Division of Women and Crime and remained an active member throughout her life.

Nicky was never afraid to take on unpopular topics. Long before the recent resurgence of criminological interest in genetics and crime, Nicky was one of few criminologists to examine the origins of the eugenics and crime movement – and her decades-long interest in this area never waned. In White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies 1877-1919 (1988), Creating Born Criminals (1997), and The Criminal Brain: Understanding Biological Theories of Crime Nicky promoted a critical re-evaluation of biological theories of crime. A collaboration with social historian, Mary Gibson, led to their re-translation of the Cesare Lombroso’s Criminal Man and Criminal Woman.  In the 1990s, Nicky’s interest shifted to the representation of crime in popular culture. In Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society (1999) and Criminology Goes to the Movies (2011), co-authored with Michelle Brown, Nicky examined crime films through a criminological lens arguing that crime films form a discourse in their own right.

Never one to let her intellectual curiosity stagnate, in 2010, she was awarded a Fulbright to study and teach in Linz, Austria, childhood home of Adolf Hitler and the cultural center of the Third Reich.  Her experiences in Linz moved her to seek a deeper understanding of genocide and served as the impetus for her most recent book The Crime of All Crimes, Toward a Criminology of Genocide which was published by NYU in March of 2016, nearly one month after her death. In his review of the book, John Braithwaite describes The Crime of all Crimes as “a landmark reframing in the criminology of genocide” writing that Nicky’s work “challenges existing claims about the nature of genocide, weaving together a complex new understanding of crime, war, and violence.” Nicky challenged every idea she confronted.

Nicky’s many achievements as a scholar were recognized by American Society of Criminology with her selection as a Fellow in 2000 and as the winner of the Sutherland Award in 2009, but one of her most enduring legacies is her mentoring of students and junior colleagues. Throughout her career she chaired numerous dissertations, provided mentorship and guidance to young scholars, and led efforts to ensure the profession recognized scholarship from marginalized and underrepresented groups. Most importantly, Nicky was an inspiration to many in the field of criminal justice.  Her research was bold and she was even bolder. She was demanding, fierce, and loyal. Despite the importance of her scholarly work, those who knew her well will likely remember her inspiration as her most enduring legacy.

Nicky lived in Boston’s North End, where she was active in community affairs. She is survived by her husband Robert Hahn, her son Alex Hahn, her daughter Sara Hahn, and her daughter in-law Sunali Goonesekera. Geoff Ward and Amy Farrell have organized a special session in her honor for the 2016 ASC meetings in New Orleans and we hope you will join us for a celebration of her life and impact on the field. Donations in her honor can be made to Human Rights Watch at www.hrw.org.

Authored by: Amy Farrell and Natasha Frost

Published On: August 3, 2016