My research agenda generally centers on drug and alcohol policy. I am also particularly interested in drunk driving and advanced statistical methods. My analytical perspective focuses on the way society reacts to substance use and the effect that these reactions have on society. Thus, the interaction of law and society is generally a common theme in my research. For example, I have found that public opinion about marijuana legalization is related to media more than actual marijuana use, that proposed changes in DUI policy will likely have little impact on fatal crashes while drastically increasing DUI arrests, and drug sentencing outcomes are greatly influenced by extralegal social factors such as racial and economic inequality. Research in this area is vital to the effective, efficient, and legitimate operation of the criminal justice system.
My dissertation, “Policing the Drinking and the Community: An Assessment of the War on Drunk Driving and the Community (1985-2012)” concentrates on the criminal justice response to drunk driving. Multilevel modeling and growth curve analysis are utilized to evaluate the effect of arrests on alcohol related crashes at the county level. While the U.S. arrests more people for DUI than almost all other offenses and focuses a plethora of resources on this phenomenon, there has been little change in DUI crashes in the past few decades. This area has also been largely overlooked area of criminological research. Therefore, this project aims to contemporaneously evaluate the effectiveness of efforts at the state and county level to reduce drunk driving so that resources are not wasted and lives are saved. Additionally, since research is suggestive of a variance in attitudes toward drunk driving across time and place, this project explores informal community factors that may influence drunk driving and DUI enforcement.
After the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) proposed that the per-se blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit be lowered to .05, my sole authored article “Buzzed Drivers and Crash Responsibility: A Quasi-Experimental Multilevel Assessment of Drivers with Low Blood Alcohol Levels and Driver Responsibility in Fatal Accidents” evaluated the potential impact that this policy may have by assessing the involvement of low BAC drivers in fatal crashes. This article found that while low BAC drivers have an increased odds of responsibility for fatal crashes when compared to sober drivers, they are only involved in a very small percentage of crashes, most of which are caused by extraneous factors. Additionally, distractions, drugs, age, and high BAC were greater contributors to fatalities. Thus, policy attention to these factors may produce more fruitful reductions in automobile crashes.
Moving away from drunk driving polices, I have also published a co-authored article on public opinion about marijuana policy. Much of the extant literature suggests that legislation prohibiting marijuana was fueled by horror stories of marijuana smoking ax murders in the 1930’s. However, many would not be likely to believe such stories today, and favor toward legalization have reached all time high levels. Thus, “Reefer Madness to Marijuana Legalization: The Media and Public Opinion about Marijuana Legalization (1975-2012)” explored the relationship between media exposure and attitudes about marijuana legalization. This article found that after the negative drug media coverage of the 1980’s subsided, there is a positive relationship between media exposure and favor of legalization. This paper argues that public opinion does not generally reflect the reality of a social problem, but rather the media propaganda; however, these changes in public opinion are likely to influence marijuana policies.
Taking into consideration the impact that the war on drugs in the 1980’s and the changes in presidential rhetoric on marijuana over time, currently I am working on a follow-up project that assesses the effect of the president on public opinions about marijuana. While the prior article and others are suggestive of the importance of the president, they are limited in their ability to separate the effects of the presidential from those of the time period. Therefore, “Just Say No” to “I Didn’t Inhale” to “We Have Bigger Fish to Fry”: The President and the Marijuana Issue (1975-2014)” incorporates a multilevel approach to control for time period and uses multiple measures of the presidential drug agenda to fill this void in the literature. Building on the idea that the war on drugs has largely been a presidential construct, this manuscript found that the presidential drug agenda plays a significant role in public opinion about marijuana.
My prior research has also included some assessments of drug sentencing disparities. In order to contribute to the debated research on whether racial sentencing disparities exist in U.S. sentencing outcomes, “It’s Not All Black and White: A Propensity Score Matched, Multilevel Examination of Racial Sentencing Disparities” combined multilevel modeling and quasi-experimental propensity score matching to examine African-American sentencing outcomes compared to Caucasian drug offenders. The findings indicate that while disparities do exist in some instances, the effect of race on sentencing is impacted by several structural level factors such as minority drug use and arrests, poverty, education, and minority population.
A recent co-authored project uses the minority threat hypothesis to examine individual Hispanic drug sentencing outcomes. While many criminological tests of the theory analyze population changes while omitting attitudinal data, this results in assumptions about intent. As such, this project used attitudinal data and factor analysis to create a composite measure of immigrant threat as well as incorporating population data. This manuscript entitled “Inequality at the Border: Disentangling the Impact of Aggregated Immigration Attitudes on Latino Sentencing Disparities”, found that although Latino/as receive longer sentences than Caucasian offenders and this disparity is also influenced by the immigrant and Hispanic population. Additionally, increases in attitudinal measures of immigrant threat are related to increases in sentence length for Hispanic offenders, thus supporting the minority threat hypothesis.
My five-year plan for the future will focus on drunk driving policy since it constitutes a significant social problem that is largely overlooked in our field. Specifically, I plan to further examine the effectiveness of DUI policies such as punishment, and also analyze some self-report data to bridge the “dark figure” between enforcement and alcohol related crashes. Moreover, I am planning to use spatial analysis to examine DUI crashes and arrests and their relationship with alcohol outlets in the state of Virginia. I have a great interest in advanced statistics and quantitative methods such as multilevel modeling, propensity score matching, crime mapping, path analysis, and structural equation modeling which will likely lead to some future collaborative work. I am also beginning a collaborative juvenile justice project utilizing some Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice data with another colleague shorty.