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Ashley Rubin Honored for Writing Nation’s Best Grad Student Paper

Ashley Rubin
Ashley Rubin

By Andrew Cohen

Ashley Rubin, a Ph.D. student in Berkeley Law’s Jurisprudence and Social Policy (JSP) Program, has won the Law and Society Association prize for best graduate student paper. It marks the fourth time over the past five years that a JSP student received the national award.

Rubin’s winning paper is entitled “Race, Ethnicity, and Nativity at Eastern State Penitentiary: A Study of the Variation in Sentence Length, 1829–1871.” It draws on data for over 6,000 inmates to demonstrate how the social dynamics and decision-making practices that influence sentencing outcomes remain relatively consistent over time.

On track to receive her Ph.D. in 2012, Rubin’s work addresses “why we punish harshly or leniently across time” by examining how officials view punishment, what individuals think about it, and how people are actually punished. “In each case,” she says, “the social circumstances are important in understanding why a particular view or penal trend is present.”

Rubin’s paper also analyzes why some periods within the researched time frame had greater sentencing disparities than others. In the 1830s and early 1840s, for example, an increase in immigration and a spike in both inter- and intra-ethnic violence led to more sentencing disparities for non-native and non-white offenders.

Rubin, who describes her paper as “an ongoing project,” began researching for it in 2008. “At the time, I only had access to 12 years’ worth of data,” she says. “Five of those years were during the Civil War, so the dataset wasn’t very reliable.” Rubin returned to the project in spring 2009—eventually ordered microfilm from the Pennsylvania State Archives—and did data entry for several months in her spare time.

Over the summer and fall, she performed data analyses, read more about contemporary sentencing disparities, and created a framework for using theory to address those disparities. Rubin presented her research at the American Society of Criminology in November 2009, and a month later turned in a version for Professor Malcolm Feeley’s Courts and Social Policy class.

Berkeley Law faculty members Kristin Luker, Justin McCrary, Daniel Rubinfeld, Kevin Quinn, and Jonathan Simon ’87 also provided guidance on the paper, which Feeley nominated for the Law and Society Association prize. “There are many people who have helped me with this,” Rubin says. “Their input and encouragement has been invaluable.”

This summer, Rubin will conduct research for Feeley and Professor Calvin Morrill, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Society, for which she was a 2009 William K. Colbentz Civil Rights Student Research Fellow. She will also revise her paper and submit it to Criminology, a peer-reviewed journal, and study for her JSP field exam.

Rubin graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley in both Legal Studies and History, and won the 2007 campus Library Prize for Undergraduate Research for a paper on the role of religion in Eastern State Penitentiary from 1829–1849. Also Phil Beta Kappa and named to the National Dean’s List, she has been a guest lecturer in the Legal Studies Program and a graduate student instructor in four program classes. After receiving her Ph.D., Rubin hopes to become a tenure-track professor at a large research university in sociology, criminology, or an interdisciplinary law and society department.