College Applications: “Accused of a Crime”

May 24, 2013

In December 2011, I applied for admission to the University of Georgia.  This was one of several applications discussed in another post.  Georgia’s application form posed an interesting question.  I submitted a memo on that question, along with my application.  The following sections present that memo (with a few subsequent edits for readability) and then provide additional discussion.

The Memo

To:  Admissions Committee
From:  Ray Woodcock
Date:  December 14, 2011
Re:  Charges Against the Applicant

In the process of filling out the Graduate School’s online application form, I encountered a question that I considered problematic.  I found that it would be difficult to provide a “full” response, as demanded, within the limit of 1,024 characters allowed on the form.  Therefore, I decided to submit a brief answer there, and to supplement it with this memo.

Then, as I began to prepare this supplementary memo, it occurred to me that this could be an opportunity to explore the question of my suitability for your program.  It seemed, that is, that a more extensive presentation might serve several purposes.  First, it might illustrate the kinds of perspectives that I may contribute to discussion and literature regarding protection of students.  It might also illuminate the situation I encountered at Indiana University (IU), where it appears that my vigorous opposition to certain improprieties may have inadvertently encouraged faculty and administrators to circle their wagons defensively.  Further, this memo also makes a case for change in certain aspects of the Graduate School’s application processes.

The Question

The last page of the Graduate School’s online application form asks the following question:

Have you ever been charged with or convicted of or pled guilty or nolo contendere to a crime other than a minor traffic offense, or are any criminal charges now pending against you?

The form then presents the following statement:

Convictions shall include:  A finding of guilty by a judge or jury, a plea of guilty, a plea of nolo contendere, a plea of no contest, an Alford plea to a criminal charge or a plea under the first offender act, irrespective of the pendency or availability of any appeal or application of collateral relief.  If “Yes,” explain fully, specifying the nature of the offense(s), the date(s) it/they occurred, the name and location of the court(s) and sentence(s) imposed.  Please have the appropriate authority submit official court documentation directly to the Office of Graduate Admissions.

If the answer to the previous question is yes, you must submit a full statement of relevant facts.  (Maximum of 1024 characters)

Finally, the form requires the applicant’s assent to the following statement:

I understand that any material false statement made knowingly and willfully by me on this application, or any supporting documents may, in accordance with O.C.G.A. 16-10-71, which provides that upon conviction, a person who knowingly commits the offense of false swearing shall be punished by a fine of not more than $1,000 or by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than five years, or both, subject me to prosecution in a court of law.

Interpreting the Question

The question appears to be this:  Have you ever been charged with any crime other than a minor traffic offense?  The words “or convicted of or pled guilty or nolo contendere” seem superfluous, unless one can plead or be found guilty in law without first being accused.

It is a remarkable question.  Minorities, poor people, and males are charged with crimes far more frequently than white people, rich people, or females.  Laws tend to control disadvantaged people disproportionately: for example, immorality in law firms is relatively free from the constant monitoring that police apply to immorality among the disadvantaged, with the threat of vague, all-purpose charges like “disturbing the peace.”

In other words, the Graduate School’s sweeping language is especially likely to tag, as potential undesirables, those who come from demographic groups that are already relatively scarce in higher education.  Members of such groups – even those who do not, themselves, have anything to disclose – may be sensitive to the possibility that their perspectives are not well represented or cared for, or that people like them are only provisionally accepted into the university community.  In short, given the costs and burdens of a graduate school application (particularly for those of limited means), I would expect some students, so tagged, to be discouraged from applying.  It would be worth knowing, then, whether the Graduate School’s approach is empirically informed.

The sweeping language of that question on the application form might be defensible if criminal charges were a reliable indicator of potential undesirability.  Unfortunately, the criminal justice system is broken.  Innocent people are too often compelled to plead guilty or nolo contendere.  The costs of criminal defense, and the sentencing risks when such a defense fails, are so high as to deter the vast majority of accused individuals from trying to prove their innocence.  They tend rather to accept what the prosecutor is offering – and prosecutors’ career interests tend to be served by harshness.  In short, being charged by a police officer commonly amounts to a conviction without judge or jury.

In light of these comments, the question on the application form may be read thus:  Has a police officer ever decided to accuse you of a crime?  It is odd that this would be the criterion by which certain people would be singled out for closer scrutiny.  After all, rampant police corruption is an established fact in some jurisdictions, and police bias and fabrication are not uncommon.  In law, as in science, evidentiary support is essential to proper characterization of a person or situation.

A focus on charges made by police could convey a sense that the Graduate School is bent upon finding – indeed, facilitating the invention of – derogatory information about students.  How else should one construe the application’s demand for disclosure of charges that have been dismissed for lack of evidence, or because the applicable law was unconstitutional, or of which the accused was acquitted?  It certainly appears that the Graduate School wishes to revisit determinations made by prosecutors, juries, and judges who would tend to be more familiar with and/or trained in the law and the facts of the case. The better question might be, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime in a fair trial by a jury of your peers?”

The application demands disclosure even in “first offender” cases where the courts themselves expunge all records of the alleged crime.  From the applicant’s perspective, an application to the Graduate School may thus open a can of worms, as it puts that old accusation back into play.  Now the applicant must be concerned that any attorney or prosecutor who subpoenas the Graduate School, for any random form of litigation, will be able to dig up things that the courts themselves deemed worth burying.  Also, these days, applicants – who are not typically knowledgeable about procedures among various institutions and law enforcement agencies – may reasonably fear that their honest answers to the Graduate School’s question may wind up in a police file somewhere, unpleasantly augmenting if not encouraging future charges against them, legitimate or otherwise.  Moreover, a would-be applicant who has experienced or is concerned about information leakage and gossip in higher education may realize that confidentiality in the application process can be compromised over the period of years during which the student is working on a PhD.  Among other things, these thoughts can provoke fear of public or professional humiliation, deserved or not, if the contents of the student’s application should happen to leak out.

From the applicant’s perspective, the quoted language on the graduate application wallows rather deeply in the presumption of guilt.  Note, for example, that it requires the applicant to specify “the nature of the offense” (not of “the charge”) and “the date(s) it/they occurred” (not contemplating that perhaps no such thing did occur).  The applicant is expected to provide “a full statement of relevant facts” within 1,024 characters – suggesting, in light of the other items just noted, that what is expected is an indication of how bad one’s crime was, not an explanation of why there was no crime.  Where guilt is presumed, applicants might fear that an attempt at self-defense will be considered audacious.  A clear answer, never mind a defense, within 1,024 characters will be particularly difficult for those who, by dint of race, age, socioeconomic status or other factors, have had occasion to be accused more than once.

Of course, it is advisable to determine that applicants do not pose a threat to campus security and are likely to thrive in their programs.  At the same time, it seems inadvisable to manufacture unnecessary dangers for potential applicants.  According to the application, withholding any information could result in prosecution and conviction — even if the thing that the applicant failed to disclose was that there was, in fact, no crime.

Such considerations have not been an issue in my applications to other universities.  For purposes of protecting students – indeed, for purposes of marketing – it does seem appropriate to observe a general distinction between universities that exhibit pervasive concern for student interests and those that do not.  Adverse impressions can arise easily.  To offer an entirely different example, many applicants have surely noticed that, at the application stage, some leading universities do not require physical delivery of duplicate official transcripts from every university attended – an exercise that cost me $100 yesterday – but are rather content to receive cost-free unofficial uploads at the time of initial application.  Regardless of the example used, it appears that a positive university environment requires careful attention to protection of students.

Further Discussion

So, as I say, I addressed that memo to the admissions committee, and I sent it with my application.  The University of Georgia did not reply to it and (as I verified at the time of writing this post) did not improve its application process in response.  It is not clear why not.  One must assume that the people responsible for that offensive inquiry, and for its use in applications to the school of education, are not slow learners.  Surely they were already aware of most of the thoughts conveyed in the memo — or, if not, surely they were able to read and understand the memo.  There is admittedly the possibility that they simply deemed any such communication from a graduate school applicant as unworthy of their attention, and did not bother to read it.  Whatever the excuse, this post may assist people who make such inquiries, at Georgia and elsewhere, to balance morbid curiosity against individual privacy, and to treat higher education as a place for building new futures rather than as a zone for revivification of every unwarranted past accusation.

The memo points out the perversity of highlighting false charges, brought disproportionately against minorities, when it is already difficult enough to recruit minorities to higher education.  One might make the same point regarding males.  Men – who have been steadily less represented on campus since the 1970s – are arrested for all kinds of crimes, including nonviolent (e.g., drug-related) crimes, at rates vastly exceeding those for women (Statistical Abstract, 2012, tables 283 & 324).  The imbalanced hand of the law is even more visible at the sentencing level:  there are more than 13 times as many men as women in prison (West & Sabol, 2011, p. 2).  The University of Georgia adopts and emphsizes this gender discrepancy, in terms consistent with a phenomenon I have called haremization.  The message is not that such men have paid their debt to society, but rather that the university will remember, and will be watching you, no matter how old, trivial, or false your charge may have been.

The Institute of Higher Education (IHE) at the University of Georgia characterizes itself as having an ongoing “tradition” of “public service.”  This tradition expressly includes “outreach” programs that seek to improve teaching and learning and to improve rates of college enrollment.  Ironically, at this writing, IHE’s webpage for one such outreach program, the Georgia College Advising Corps, features a photograph showing four individuals:  three are black, and two of those three are male.  That webpage commences with a statement that the Corps was launched “to address the widening gap in college access for low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students in Georgia.”  It does seem baffling that IHE would pursue and advertise such a program while incorporating, in its application materials, an exceptional inquisition with clear risks of deterring members of those groups from applying.

These sorts of concerns are obvious enough.  Presumably some appropriately trained faculty members at the University of Georgia could have thought of them by now.  For instance, the university does offer a PhD program in sociology.  Indeed, at this writing, the first two areas of specialty listed on that program’s webpage are “crime, law, and deviance” and “education and family.”  Oddly, though, a search of the university’s list of courses suggests that the sociology program offers only one graduate course in criminology (SOCI 8840).  The title of that course is “Gender, Crime, and Justice,” and perhaps its description sheds some light:

This course uses sociological and feminist theories to examine crime, criminology, and the criminal justice system from a gendered perspective. In doing so, the class is organized around three basic themes:  the gendered nature of perpetration; gender variation in victimization; and women as participants in the legal process.

This information raises a question of whether the University of Georgia has been able to remain unsympathetic to the obvious points stated in the foregoing memo, in part, because the members of a department especially well positioned to examine justice-related data are too busy indulging the preconception that criminality is largely something that men do to women.  Such a belief could leave out the fact that men are significantly more likely than women to be victims of crime (Statistical Abstract, 2012, table 316) – that, indeed, the difference between male and female rates of violent crime victimization has grown markedly in the past ten years (Truman & Planty, 2012, p. 5).  It would also leave out the role of the government (above) in generating excessive and frequently false charges and convictions against men and disadvantaged people.  In other words, the department of sociology at the University of Georgia may be strongly emphasizing that crime disproportionately victimizes men – but that emphasis is not evident in the foregoing course description, and the university’s graduate admissions people do not seem concerned with any such thought.

To sum up, this post criticizes an atypical and excessively inquisitorial orientation in a graduate application form.  I conveyed these criticisms to the school of education as part of my application there in 2011, but my remarks were essentially disregarded.  It has thus seemed advisable to make the point more publicly and emphatically.  Another post further develops thoughts expressed here. One may hope that such efforts will encourage thoughtful reflection on the part of the responsible individuals in places like the University of Georgia.

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