Doctoral Student Seeks Balance in Justice System

Home is Where the Research Takes You

Safiya Hafiz, doctoral student in sociology, credits “serendipity” with her choice to attend Washington State University. She was visiting family in Washington state when a friend recommended WSU. “I liked the sociology program,” she said, “and applied.” She received an offer, attended a virtual Visit Day, and spoke with faculty. “Everyone was overwhelmingly nice, considerate, and caring,” she said. “WSU was the right place.”

Safiya hails from Arizona, and both her parents are from Fiji—a country in the South Pacific with over 300 islands, mostly uninhabited. Her father is from a more populous island, and her mother, a rural village. Generations ago, people were removed from India and placed onto Fiji, creating a remarkable blend of cultures. “Fiji may seem like a random place to have a large population of Indians,” Safiya explained, “but many live in the Caribbean for similar reasons.” Her family speaks a form of Hindi, eats curry, and loves Bollywood movies and music.

She attributes all of her success to her parents and is grateful for them because “we faced challenges together as a family.” And while growing up in Fiji was “very cool,” Safiya said she always felt different. “I was trying to figure out the world,” she said, “and my parents were trying to figure out American culture. ‘Who is Santa?’ I would ask, and they would answer, ‘We’re not sure.’” Safiya said that her parents still tried to give her a Merry Christmas. “We put out carrots for Santa,” she added, “instead of milk and cookies.”

While pursuing a psychology degree at Northern Arizona University, Safiya’s interests veered toward criminology, criminal justice, and sociology. She wanted to help people on a larger scale and explore how social problems affected large groups, like those in the justice system. “I learned about social problems in sociology courses,” she said, “and became interested in how crime and incarceration were closely tied to poverty.”

Doctoral student sitting among flowers
Doctoral student, Safiya Hafiz, among flowers.

She narrowed her focus to incarceration, seeking a deeper understanding of the institutions. “Incarceration is an intriguing issue,” she said, “because it feels as though people/society have conflicting views about what we should do versus what we actually do. These systems are prevalent in the US, and it is critical to study what they do (and do not do) for society.”

Safiya’s research explores two main questions:

Why do we incarcerate?

Are there more effective alternatives?

“There are many improvements we can make by understanding how the criminal justice system interacts with the rest of society,” she said, “and that is what I want to study as a sociologist.”

Safiya also seeks to gain a deeper understanding of the impact social control has on individual lives and society. “We default to incarceration,” she said, “and I wonder if we could default to something else.” Safiya said that we need to look at the consequences of balancing rehabilitation with punishment. “On one hand, we want to punish offenders and do not want to make prison or jail a pleasant experience. On the other hand, we want people to feel better coming out than they did going in. It is an odd balance to strike.”

Regarding the implications of social control, including the definitions and enforcement of “criminal behavior,” Safiya said, “youth are particularly interesting, because they have reduced culpability, and many juvenile court systems need to balance punitive with rehabilitative interventions.”

Safiya’s research examines crime and punishment in different contexts, like comparing urban and rural areas, and how crime and punishment may look different across a variety of populations, ones defined by race, gender, age, poverty, and so on. She said, “Many other factors contribute to how people are treated as they navigate the criminal justice system.”

“As a society, I think we might benefit from figuring out how to make incarceration a last resort,” she said. “The juvenile court system is fascinating because many already try to do this.” Safiya also wants to learn how a community’s context, rurality, and other aspects might explain the differences in how youth are sentenced, or diverted, out of the juvenile justice system.

At WSU, Safiya collaborates with Dr. Jennifer Schwartz, the James F. Short Distinguished Professor, whose areas include criminology, stratification/inequalities, communities, and drugs/health. “She has been a great mentor,” Safiya said. “We recently worked on a project where we evaluated jail trends in a Washington county, and I enjoyed the practical aspects of the project. Dr. Schwartz is fantastic at finding ways to involve students in her projects, and we get hands-on experience and learn how to work with local communities and organizations.”

In applying her research, Safiya aspires to “make sociology available to everyone by speaking about sociological theories and concepts in plain language. I hope to graduate from my program with the skills to conduct interesting and important research and explain these concepts to academics and non-academics.”

She offers these thoughts to prospective graduate students: “The most important aspect to think about is ‘fit.’ But funding is incredibly important too.” She added, “As researchers and WSU employees, it is difficult to manage working as a TA or RA, dedicating time to your own research project and classes, as well as simply living. A livable wage is crucial to the success of graduate students. I am lucky to be part of GDAPP.”

“Without support from GDAPP,” she said, “it would be incredibly difficult to manage working in my program and affording basic necessities, a struggle most graduate students endure. It is also fantastic to meet other diverse scholars from different programs.”

Whether by chance or thoughtful consideration, Safiya is pleased with her decision to attend WSU and calls the experience “rewarding and fulfilling.” She said, “I just felt I would have a great experience if I studied sociology at WSU. It was hard to leave my home, but I have made Pullman a home just the same.”