National award for book on the American youth justice system

  • Date

    Tue 14 Jan 20

Dr Alexandra Cox

An Essex academic has picked up a prestigious award for her new book looking at the youth justice system in America

Dr Alexandra Cox, from the Department of Sociology, has won the Critical Criminology Book Award from the American Society of Criminology. 

Here she tells us about Trapped in a Vice, which explores the lives of young people in the criminal justice system and reveals that it is their struggle to manage the expectations of the system, rather than their crimes, that leave them trapped.

Can you explain what the book is about?

The book is based on several years of research inside of New York’s justice system, and focuses on the dynamics of incarceration for young people and the staff that look after them.

Why did you write this book – what did you hope to achieve?

 Before I got my PhD I worked in New York City’s justice system representing teenagers charged with crimes as a sentencing advocate.  I had intimate knowledge of the court and justice system, but less knowledge of the facilities where they were sent once they were sentenced.  I wanted to explore their experiences of incarceration, and understand what consequences those experiences had for their time after custody.

What research is the book based on?

 Over three years of qualitative research inside of five residential facilities in New York State, involving interviews with 39 young people and approximately 70 staff members.

What do you see as the main problems with the criminal justice system for young people?

 The system aims to treat or change young people, but within a punitive context, which is a fundamentally contradictory aim.  The system conceptualizes young people as fully in control of their futures, while also recognizing that there are enormous structural barriers to their success.

What can be done about these problems?

 We can stop sending so many young people into custody and start bolstering the opportunities that exist for them in their communities.  Additionally, we can focus on the redistribution of resources so we spend more tax dollars on health and social care, and less of that money on punishment.   

What impact has the book had?

It’s received favorable reviews in nine academic journals and I have given approximately 10 talks about the book at universities and in community-based settings.  I have also been interviewed about the book on podcasts and it was featured on the website Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.