Berkeley Sociology grad student investigates inequities in the criminal legal system through the CRELS Program

March 18, 2024

UC Berkeley Sociology graduate student Ángel Mendiola Ross’ curiosity about using big data and computational methods to try and tackle perpetuating inequities in the criminal justice system led them to apply to the Berkeley Social Sciences’ multidisciplinary Computational Research for Equity in the Legal System (CRELS) Program. The program aims to combine social science and computational science to examine systemic inequities in the criminal legal system. By combining these disciplines, CRELS fosters the collaboration of a diverse group of researchers to tackle these inequalities by using data science, AI, and big data. 

For Ross, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Sociology, CRELS is a program that will empower him with new tools to leverage computational methods to better understand a criminal legal system that impacts neighborhoods quite differently depending on who lives there.

Born and raised in Southern California’s Inland Empire, Ross is a first-generation college student whose research was inspired by the suburban inequality and segregation he grew up around. His path ultimately led him to UC Berkeley, where they first earned a master's degree in urban planning and worked at PolicyLink, an Oakland-based organization focused on advancing racial and economic equity.

Ross' research calls into question many prevailing notions about the criminal legal system. In one study of Southern California cities, for example, he failed to find a consistent relationship between increased police presence or budgets and crime rates. Their insights extend to the counterproductive effects of mass incarceration on society, arguing that any minor benefits are overshadowed by its social and economic costs. This critical perspective fuels his scholarly pursuits, driving him to seek solutions that can genuinely benefit communities.

“Crime was actually coming down as we were building more prisons, so it’s hard to claim that mass incarceration has helped with crime,” Ross said. “The broader policy consensus is that if there is a very small potential benefit of crime reduction that comes from incarceration, it likely does not outweigh the social and economic costs of mass incarceration”

The CRELS Program, with its emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration and computational methods, was a natural fit for Ross, who was seeking to find answers to these questions. It offered them a platform to expand their quantitative research toolkit and computational science skills to critically examine the criminal justice system. CRELS also offers an opportunity to learn from peers in diverse fields, fostering a multidisciplinary approach to addressing systemic issues.

Ross' dissertation and work in the CRELS program reflects his commitment to exploring racial and economic segregation and its evolution in American society. The first part of their work examines the role of prisons in demographic shifts and segregation trends, particularly in suburbs – a relatively underexplored aspect of racial inequality. There’s not a lot of research about how prisons have influenced the demographics of their surrounding neighborhoods and how segregation trends may have shifted due to their presence, he said. 

The second part of his dissertation pivots to the work he’s doing at CRELS and the Eviction Research Network’s comprehensive database of those who have experienced eviction and following those households in detail. Using this database, Ross intends to delve into the rise of suburban evictions; the role it plays in perpetuating poverty and different forms of segregation; and the relocating patterns of those evicted in areas with fewer protections for renters. 

Beyond his research, Ross aims to leverage the CRELS Program to enhance his mentoring skills, aspiring to guide Berkeley undergraduates through their inquiries into social justice issues. 

“I hope to get from CRELS additional training that will not only support my dissertation research but will also make me a better mentor to the undergrads,” they said. “The Social Sciences D-Lab has this great tagline of ‘it’s okay to not know,’ and I feel like that is the sentiment I get from me and the other CRELS fellows. We’re here to learn too and there’s that kind of openness to learning from each other.” 

Ross envisions CRELS as a vital space for interdisciplinary learning and collaboration, essential for tackling the many challenges within the criminal justice system. His journey reflects a deep commitment to not only understanding injustices and inequalities but actively contributing to their resolution.

As Ross continues his academic and advocacy work, their efforts underscore the importance of bridging different disciplines to forge new pathways in the quest for a more equitable and just society. Through the CRELS Program, Ross and his peers are at the forefront of a vital conversation, one that promises to reshape the landscape of criminal justice reform.

"Angel is a great example of the interdisciplinary graduate training we are providing through CRELS. He is combining his sociological domain knowledge regarding criminal legal systems, segregation, and housing with computational methods to answer new and interesting scientific questions, with important implications for our understanding of social inequality."

- David Harding (Co-Director, Computational Social Science Training Program) 

Learn more about the CRELS program here