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Michael Smyth, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Sociology


As the director of the Arlin M. Adams Center for Law and Society at Susquehanna, I help students from across the disciplines explore topics and phenomena that arise at the intersection of law and society. 

As a law and society scholar, I’m interested in questions like “Why are some behaviors criminalized and others not?” and “Why are some laws enforced to the letter while others are selectively enforced or scarcely enforced at all?” Perhaps most importantly, “How can we understand the role of power and privilege in the creation of law and its uneven enforcement?”

Why is it, for example, that despite the apparent liberalization of cultural notions about homosexuality over the past half century, a place remains, reified in law, in which the ‘reasonableness’ of killing sexual transgressors is still debated? Or, how do we make sense of a culture that at once abhors and condones prison rape? These are the kinds of questions that intrigue me.

In fact, I've written on both of these topics. The investigation of popular and legal notions about prison rape forms the focus of a book I’ve written, several journal articles I’ve published, and my doctoral dissertation.

Through the Adams Center, I'm able to offer a number of opportunities for SU students to interact with the legal and criminal justice communities off campus. For example, one of our students is currently producing an evaluation of a neighboring county’s drug court program. Another is conducting research on trends in property crime for a district attorney interested in creating a diversionary program for low-risk offenders. Meanwhile, at the request of the state legislature and the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, five of my students spent a summer collecting data in the courts, prisons and probation departments of five different counties. Once analyzed, these data will help policymakers rethink current parole and probation practices across the Commonwealth.

Adams Center-sponsored internships are great for the students on a number of levels. Our interns come back with all kinds of great stories about their experiences working in the criminal justice community and about what they found in the data. These experiences make them highly marketable as grad students. There’s nothing an admissions committee likes better than to see grad school applicants who have been out there participating in real-world research that has meaning and impact beyond students’ term papers. One of our students, who originally planned to attend the police academy after graduation, now is going to grad school instead. With an advanced degree, he’ll later join the force at the policy-making level, telling other police officers how best to do their job.

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