Research focuses on problems facing parolees


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News
The first generation in her family to attend college, Dr. Meghan M. O’Neil has been smashing barriers ever since.

O’Neil, who holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Southern Connecticut State University, a master’s degree in Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in Sociology from University at Albany, State University of New York.

She is a Social Science Research Fellow at the University of Michigan Law School, a postdoctoral Fellow Affiliate with the Population Studies Center at the Institute for Social Research, and a faculty expert at Poverty Solutions at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

O’Neil focuses her research on poverty, alternative sanctions, housing insecurity, racial inequality, and public policy.    

With a mound of publications, research and award-winning studies under her belt, O’Neil said her work is supported by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation with which she is co-investigator and site leader for the State of Michigan on “Community Corrections Fines and Fees,” and by Poverty Solutions at U-M where she is co-investigator on “Targeting Poverty in the Courts” with U-M Law School Professor J.J. Prescott.     

University of Cincinnati School of Criminal Justice recently received a grant of $2,697,998 from the Arnold Foundation. Assistant Professor Ebony Ruhland is leading the mixed-methods study called “Community Corrections Fines & Fees” with a team of researchers throughout several states, including Michigan. The University of Cincinnati’s nationally ranked School of Criminal Justice holds the number one ranking for research productivity and recognition in U.S. News & World Report as one of the top three doctoral programs in the nation.

In O’Neil’s prior experience conducting a program evaluation for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office of Special Narcotics, the data and evidence produced helped law enforcement know where to focus their efforts and helped prosecutors request funding for alternative-to-incarceration programs that were proven to reduce recidivism.    

“I anticipate the evidence produced from this research will help probation and parole identify what is working well for them and why, and, learn what other states do well that could be replicated here in Michigan,” she said.   

Life just after release from prison “is frequently fraught with serious material hardship, difficulty obtaining stable housing, and oftentimes addiction,” she added.

“During this challenging time, parolees may be ordered to pay supervision fees to community corrections or be charged fees for minor violations, such as forgetting to update his or her address,” O’Neil said. “I look forward to partnering with courts and community
corrections to produce data-driven research to better understand the connection between supervision fees, parole violations and revocation to prison for this vulnerable population."   

Fines as punishments can only work when defendants have the ability to pay them, noted U-M Law School Prof. J.J. Prescott, who with Prof. Sonja Starr will serve as a faculty expert on the 3-year grant.   

“Too often, our courts seek to enforce fines in ways that are too socially costly to make sense — such as incarcerating people — and that are directly at odds with the goal of inducing defendant compliance — for example, driver's license suspensions, which make it difficult for people to earn the money they need to pay their fines,” he says.    

“We need to find more effective, more efficient and fairer ways to enforce many of our laws, keeping an eye in particular on how we might reduce the sometimes heavy, but usually unnecessary burdens some of our existing practices place on many Michiganders and their families,” he said. “Data collection and rigorous research on fines, probation, and enforcement generally in our courts is the place to start.”   

The Population Studies Center (PSC) at the Institute for Social Research is administering the grant subcontract at the University of Michigan.

“I was very pleased to learn of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation’s generous support for this project, as it will be critical to expand our understanding of community corrections,” says PSC Director Dr. Jeffrey Morenoff.

He said his research has shown that “many people on parole have great difficulty making ends meet and are at heightened risk of being sent back to prison due to parole violations.”

“Much more remains to be learned about the extent to which fines, fees, and other terms of parole supervision add to this picture of
financial instability and risk of recidivism,” he said.

“I look forward to the continuation of this vital research and anticipate its conclusions will make a novel, evidence-based contribution to the fields of public policy and criminal justice.”

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