Researcher of the Month
Political Science & Theatre Arts major, Honors College, Class of 2016
Research Mentor: Regina Good, Esq., Lecturer - Political Science
*Photo courtesy of Bridget Downes
“I’m learning so much in the process of doing the research for my thesis,” reflects Jordanne Miller, a senior in the Honors College, majoring in Political Science and Theatre Arts, from Lockport, NY.
Jordanne is this year’s recipient of the Michael Gramer Award, presented by the Department of Political Science to an honors student in the department whose thesis shows great promise. Working under the mentorship of Regina Good, Esq., Jordanne is engaged in “An examination of the influence that political party affiliation per district has regarding the use of discretionary arrests made by police departments throughout the United States,” a senior capstone project that will be presented both at the URECA poster symposium and at the Honors College Symposium later in April/May.
At SB, Jordanne has been active in PocketTheater Club as an Executive board member—and last year enjoyed being co-choreographer for a student production of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” She has been regularly involved as a cast member of multiple Theatre Department productions, and will be serving as Master Electrician this spring for an upcoming production of “As You Like It.” Jordanne is a member of the Pre-law Society, the Red Watch Band; and Golden Key International Honor Society. For ~ two years, she was also a member of the SB Cheerleading team. She also participates in the Honors College Big Sibling Mentor program; and holds two on-campus jobs, working as an assistant in Procurement, and as a note-taker for Disability Services. Jordanne will be attending Columbus School of Law (D.C.) this fall, on a full-tuition scholarship. Below are excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen. What is your senior thesis about?
Jordanne. What I’m doing, for my thesis for both the Honors College and for Political Science is examining the influence that political party affiliation per district has regarding the use of discretionary arrests made by police departments throughout the United States. I have determined several specific areas within the United States to compare and to analyze, areas that are similar in size, population, socioeconomic breakdown, etc. but differ in majority political party affiliation. So I’m looking at the number of discretionary arrests made within the year and the number of fines for similar offenses. Things that may fall into this discretionary category include public urination, speeding – where it’s up to the discretion of the officer at the scene as to whether the offender is fined or detained.
How did the idea for your project evolve?
Last spring, I took a course (POL 332) on the politics of the criminal due process system with Professor Regina Good, my advisor. Her class really made me think about the use of discretion in the police and legal system and so I wanted to explore that topic more for my senior thesis. It was something that I’m really interested in, and as a pre-law student, I knew I wanted to do something with the legal system. I talked to her about it, got her opinion on whether it would be a feasible thing to do for a senior thesis and then we really worked on it to narrow down the topic idea.
So what have you found out?
Right now, I’m completing my calculations for all of the research that I have done. …But from initial calculations, it seems to be that the predominantly Republican areas tend to have more arrests rather than fines, and the predominantly Democratic areas tend to have more fines rather than arrests. But this is still preliminary. I’m going into it more to see if that trend really holds up. Something else that I found is that in small towns (in both majority Democrat and majority Republican areas), fines rather than arrests are more often favored as a response.
How difficult has it been to find out the information you need to do your analysis?
It took a lot of research! But many phone calls and much research later – I found what I needed. Initially I went through J-star- the database for the library. But I also needed to contact the police departments directly to ask where they release their information when I couldn’t find current statistics. A lot of police departments do publish this data on their websites—but in order to find it, you have to go through a long path of links until you finally get to the excel spreadsheet with the relevant data. Sometimes the statistics are just a little more hidden, or difficult to find.
What were some of the initial difficulties or obstacles in defining your topic?
When you’re comparing different regions and precincts, it can be difficult to control for all the factors involved, and hone in on political party affiliation as a predominant factor. You can’t look at just political party and the effects and say –“oh well, that causes it.” Because as we all know, correlation isn’t causation. But what I decided to do – with the help of my advisor – was to find extremely similar populations where, when you look at the statistics on discretionary arrests vs. fines, you can rule out size, or socioeconomic factors. Also in comparing similar age breakdowns, I’m able to control for the fact that some officers tend to give fines to the elderly rather than to youth.
Are you able to tell the age of the arresting officers?
No that information isn’t released.
What for you has been the benefit or value of doing a senior capstone project?
I think there’s tremendous value. I’m learning so much in the process of doing the research for my thesis. I learned to communicate with outside sources when I needed information (e.g. how to call a police department). I learned how to work thoroughly and find different ways to get around obstacles. And I learned a lot about statistics which was cool, because it wasn’t something I anticipated that I would learn. Also, I developed a really strong relationship with my mentor. In a big university, it can be hard to form those really strong one-on-one bonds – and this was an opportunity that allowed me to do that.
Tell me more about working with your mentor.
Regina Good, Esq. is a lawyer and teaches a course here; she’s also a best-selling author and she’s worked on a lot prominent cases …She’s got all these life experiences that she can tie in to the conversation and she is really relate-able. One of the first things she told me that she does, when she is about to write a book, is to write a table of contents so that within each chapter, she knows what she wants to concentrate on. When I started thinking about my thesis, I had this big broad idea – and by working with her, we narrowed it down to what I really wanted to work on so that I wouldn’t get lost in some huge idea that I had no idea how to tackle.
We also communicate by email a lot. We try and set up one to two meetings per month. One of the first things that we did was make a breakdown of exactly what I needed to do, and to figure out how much time for each portion of the project was needed. We set due dates so that I would be on a strict schedule. At each deadline, she would review everything that I had done so far and give me suggestions of other resources that might be useful. She has helped me to navigate the process, and narrow down what is or isn’t reliable data, whether I have what I need to set up my calculations, things like that. ...Throughout this whole process, she’s been tremendously helpful and really invaluable.
What are your future plans?
I’ll be going to Columbus School of Law in DC next fall. I took my LSATs this past June, and I applied to law school early in December 1. They were the first school I heard from –and they actually offered me a full tuition scholarship.
It’s a $150,000 scholarship for 3 years. I’m so excited. And it is a huge relief not having to go in with a large amount of student loans.
What advice do you have for other students embarking on a senior thesis?
Make sure that you have an adviser that’s really going to help you. My adviser has been invaluable in how far I’ve gotten. I’ve learned so much! The second thing is to narrow down what you’re going to research and write about. For my friends in the sciences, they already have this very specific thing they’re doing. For my friends that in the non-sciences, most of them anyway, they start with these huge topics that they have so much trouble navigating because it’s just too big. I would say, if you have a good adviser and they’re telling you that you can write a paper about it, don’t worry about your topic being too narrow. Trust your adviser!
I understand that you received the Michael Gramer award for your thesis.
I didn’t even know about the award until I was awarded the award! My adviser nominated me for it.
What are some of the other main activities you’re involved in?
I’m a Political Science and Theatre arts double major. And I participate in lot of Theatre department shows through acting or backstage. I’m also involved in Pocket Theatre. Last year, when we did Rocky Horror in the fall, I was the co-choreographer for it. I’ve always been involved in theatre – and even though initially I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a major or minor, it’s something I really enjoy and am glad I pursued here at Stony Brook. And I believe it can also help me become a better lawyer because I’d like to be a trial lawyer – which, in a way, can only benefit from knowing about acting and roles. The way I look at it – if you can approach being a trial lawyer as if you’re a character, then you can keep your composure better, and understand your role in court proceedings.
Is it hard to believe that graduation is just around the corner?
Looking back on my experiences at SB, I feel very fortunate. I have had some great professors in Political Science, including my adviser, Prof. Good, Prof. Alessi (he works in NYC as a lawyer), and Prof Steinwand . And in Theater, I’ve learned a lot from Dave Barnett, he’s technical director.
Do you feel prepared for law school?
I do! I’ve learned how to take really good notes. I’ve learned how to read and synthesize information. I’ve learned how to take classes I don’t know anything about initially – how to keep myself engaged, and where I need to-- to do outside research to catch myself up. And I’ve learned how to be really, really engaged and invested in the classes. So I’m really excited about law school, and am looking forward to this next step!