Professor addresses needs of students involved in the criminal justice system

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — College students who have been involved in the criminal justice system face significant barriers in accessing opportunities that would set them up for success, according to Royel Johnson, assistant professor of education. To counteract the stigma and discrimination this population experiences, he recommends a series of steps that can be taken by student affairs professionals to meet the unique needs of justice-involved college students.

Royel M. Johnson Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

“Generally, my work examines issues related to educational access, equity and student success, with attention to its intersections with race, gender and other axes of social inequalities. And I have an unapologetic focus on our most underserved and vulnerable student populations like those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system,” said Johnson, who also is a research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education. “I’m committed to dismantling institutional practices, policies and logics that conspire in the educational failure of this population.”

Working to meet the needs of justice-involved students translates to helping certain minoritized groups attain academic and professional success, Johnson said, since communities of color — particularly Black men and women — are more likely to be impacted by the criminal justice system. His previous research has found that Black males ages 12-16 who get arrested have “practically 0% chance of enrolling in college.”

“University leaders have to be race-conscious and intersectional in their approaches in working with students,” Johnson said. “As we think about policies and practices on campus, we should also be thinking about who is being most disparately impacted by such decisions.”

The rewards for supporting justice-impacted students extend not only to the individuals but to society at large, Johnson said. Research has consistently shown that access to higher education is tied to outcomes such as increased civic engagement and enhanced employment opportunities.

“If we know all of this about the importance and benefits of higher education, why wouldn’t we extend those benefits to a population that has been systematically disenfranchised?” he said.

Johnson outlined five recommendations for aiding justice-involved college students in a brief, “FIVE THINGS Student Affairs Professionals Can Do to Support JUSTICE-INVOLVED College Students,” that he wrote for NASPA: Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education. Published by NASPA’s Research and Policy Institute, the Five Things Issue Brief Series is designed to connect leaders in the field of student affairs with academic scholarship on critical issues facing higher education.

As awareness has grown across the U.S. about the inequities that justice-involved people experience in accessing higher education, Johnson wrote in the brief, some educational leaders and policymakers have taken action. For example, in 2016, the U.S. Department of Education announced a campaign, Beyond the Box, which urged colleges and universities to reconsider the use of criminal records in college admissions. Beyond the Box is a corollary to Ban the Box, a campaign aimed at removing from hiring applications the check box that asks if applicants have a criminal record.

Broadening access to postsecondary education for justice-involved students through policy reforms in college admissions and financial aid is a necessary first step, Johnson said, but it doesn’t go far enough in helping those students succeed academically and complete their degrees.

“While there’s quite a bit of momentum for broadening access for students with criminal records, it’s insufficient for ensuring equitable, inclusive experiences that we know are critical to their success in college,” he said.

Johnson’s first recommendation for student affairs professionals in fostering equity for justice-involved students is to raise institutional awareness of the issues these students face. He said there has been a lack of national student-success discourse and a shortage of empirical research on justice-involved students’ postsecondary education experiences. He added that there are very few student affairs professionals charged with supporting justice-impacted students’ co-curricular experiences, so they have little knowledge about experiences and challenges that this particular group faces.

“Along with efforts to bring national attention to issues related to college access and success for justice-involved students, student affairs professionals can also play a role in directing attention to these issues on their campuses, while also debunking commonly held beliefs and stereotypes that these students are incorrigible, incapable of being ‘rehabilitated,’ and antisocial,” he wrote in the brief.

One of the ways in which higher education administrators can help to foster a diverse and inclusive campus environment, Johnson said, is to emphasize the importance of humanizing language.

“We can avoid using language like ‘ex-convict,’ ‘criminal’ or ‘felon’ that further marginalize students with criminal records,” he said.

An equally powerful way of cultivating a culture of inclusivity for students impacted by the criminal justice system, Johnson said, is through campus programming and messaging “that both normalize and humanize their experiences.” In the NASPA brief, he suggests that campus cultural centers and other student affairs units should host speakers to discuss equity concerns in the criminal justice system and its impact on communities of color; and that examples or stories of justice-involved students be included in visual media campaigns focused on diversity.

In addition to raising institutional awareness about the experiences and outcomes of justice-involved students, Johnson emphasized that “it is important that student affairs professionals take concrete steps to address structural and policy barriers that impact their success.”

“Structural stigma and discrimination at the college and university level includes conditions, cultural norms and institutional policies and practices that unfairly constrain the opportunities, resources and well-being of stigmatized student populations,” Johnson wrote in the NASPA brief.

To tackle those barriers, Johnson said, student affairs professionals can implement an audit of current practices on campus that examines the ways students may experience barriers to access, which may include campus background checks (e.g., for residence hall applications, campus employment and study abroad); publicly available information via the internet about criminal records; and “other involuntary forms of disclosure that put justice-involved students at heightened risk of discrimination.” In addition, Johnson recommends adding firm anti-discrimination statements that include students with criminal records as a protected group.

The third method that Johnson proposes for supporting the success of justice-impacted students involves colleges and universities taking steps to institutionalize support systems for these students. Justice-involved students could greatly benefit from programs such as new-student orientations and student legal services. The latter, Johnson said, is “really important considering many students are still facing legal challenges like probation” and may be looking to learn how their criminal records can be expunged. They also should have adequate legal services to protect themselves from housing discrimination, he added. Career services programs could prepare justice-involved students for the job market, preparing them to be able to answer tough questions about their criminal backgrounds.

In addition, Johnson wrote in the brief, “access to high-quality campus counseling and psychological services for justice-involved students is important and may be helpful to them as they transition to college, work through past traumatic experiences, and develop healthy relationships with peers, faculty and staff on campus.”

The fourth recommendation to facilitate justice-involved students’ success is addressing their high rates of basic needs insecurity. Findings from research published by the Hope Center at Temple University, Johnson reported in the NASPA brief, indicate that among underserved student populations in their sample, such as those with criminal records, 64% were food insecure, 81% were housing insecure and 40% reported as homeless.

As student affairs professionals work to address basic needs insecurity issues on their campuses, Johnson wrote in the brief, they should be sure to direct resources and supports to justice-involved students. Given that not all justice-involved students will choose to disclose their criminal record history to faculty and staff, student affairs professionals “should thus consider developing a comprehensive, online repository of resources available to justice-involved students who might not choose to disclose their criminal record history.”

Johnson’s fifth and final recommendation for student affairs professionals to meet the needs of justice-involved college students is to cultivate cross-campus, divisional and external partnerships in order to provide those students with holistic support. He suggested that student affairs professionals should engage faculty and administrators to build a broad-based coalition promoting institutional change for justice-involved students.

“The development of strong relationships with key external partners," Johnson wrote in the brief, "such as local re-entry organizations, probation and parole agencies, legal professionals who provide pro bono support for justice-involved people, and the local housing authority, among others, are key to triaging holistic support for justice-involved students."

Last Updated April 15, 2021