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Credit: Ava Cruz

Recent alumni of the graduate and undergraduate Criminology program sent a letter to department faculty urging them to address the significance of race and ethnicity in the carceral system, particularly with regard to the criminalization of Black lives.

The letter, which was signed by 17 alumni and one current student, was sent to Criminology department chair Greg Ridgeway and Criminology professor John MacDonald on July 14. It requests that the department center race in Penn's Criminology curriculum and give students a thorough understanding of the impact of race on the carceral system. In the letter, students encouraged the criminology department to consider integrating classes focused on Africana studies, sociology, urban studies, and race into their curriculum, perhaps making at least one course credit mandatory.

Criminology is the study of crime as a social phenomenon, which includes making laws, breaking laws, and reacting to the breaking of laws. Penn has the longest continuous program of research and teaching in criminology of any American university.

The letter also called on the Criminology department to diversify its current faculty members and future Master’s cohorts. The 2019 cohort included one Black student out of 18 and there are currently no Black professors in the department, according to the letter. 

2019 College and Master of Criminology graduate Nicole Rubin, who is a former staff reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian, co-wrote the letter and worked to garner signatures. Rubin said she was incentivized to do so after observing recent national conversations about defunding the police, prison abolition, and criminal justice reform. 

“My hope is that anyone who enters the criminology major or Master’s will be forced to reckon with what our carceral system is doing to Black people in America and just to reckon with that and really internalize it, read about it, learn how we can make it better,” Rubin said. 

Ridgeway responded to the letter by saying that it would be shared with the Criminology department's faculty members who will meet together in the fall to discuss holistic improvements to the curriculum and department.

“We’ve always realized we are a small department with eight faculty members and can’t do everything,” Ridgeway wrote in an emailed statement to the DP. “So we have to make choices about what we can and can’t provide. Thankfully we are a part of a spectacular larger University environment where other departments like Urban Studies, Africana Studies, History, Political Science, Psychology, and Sociology can fill in gaps.” 

After presenting the idea for the letter in her Master's cohort's GroupMe in mid-June, Rubin said many other criminology students agreed that the department needs immediate change in regard to how race is handled in the classroom.

Rubin co-wrote and edited the letter with 2019 Master of Criminology graduate Siara Sitar. The pair compiled a list of issues within the department based on responses in their Master’s cohort GroupMe, which ultimately became the foundation for the letter's demands.

“We think it's really really important that there should be a mandatory class within the Criminology department that talks about the role of race within the criminal justice system and how the criminal justice system is largely built around oppressing and putting the Black community in disadvantaged positions,” Sitar said. 

The letter proposes curriculum changes at the graduate and undergraduate level as both programs fail to address concepts of race in the classroom when it comes to analyzing crime patterns or discussing solutions for mitigating criminal activity, Rubin said. While the letter includes the signature of one undergraduate criminology student who is submatriculating, Rubin believes more Penn undergraduates might not have signed the letter because they are still in the program and do not want to criticize their professors. 

Montell Brown, a 2019 College graduate who majored in criminology and Graduate School of Education first-year, said he signed the letter because he agreed with the need for curriculum changes and a more diverse student body in the department. Brown said that he was the only Black student in his 2019 undergraduate criminology cohort. 

While he said that Penn’s criminology department is “one of the best in the country," he believes it falls short of educating students about solutions to racial issues. 

“There are Black and Brown leaders in the criminal justice and criminology fields,” Brown said. They have to be recruited. We have to incentivize them and keep them there, same with the students.” 

Sitar and Rubin used similar examples of in-class activities, such as data mapping of gang-related activity and hotspot maps for crime, to describe how the department did not go into detail about race when discussing relevant topics in the classroom. 

Madeline Freeman, a 2019 Master of Criminology graduate who signed the letter, wrote in a statement to the DP that she believes the department will be receptive to the letter's recommendations. Though the Criminology department is a small major, she wrote that she feels encouraged to see her peers come together in support of the collective efforts.  

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