The Path From Math to a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice

Nathan Connealy (Credit: The Graduate Center, Coralie Carlson)

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

As an undergrad at Simpson College in Iowa, Nathan Connealy wasn’t focused on the field of criminal justice. “I was more of a math guy,” he said.
His path changed after an internship at the Des Moines police department. Connealy is now a Ph.D. student at The Graduate Center and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He recently co-authored a study, published in Justice Evaluation Journal, that found nonviolent crime increased on Denver street segments where recreational marijuana dispensaries had opened. Connealy did the research with Professor Eric Piza (GC/John Jay, Criminal Justice) and fellow Ph.D. student Dave Hatten (Criminal Justice).
Their analysis found an 18% rise in property crime (like burglary and thefts) on street segments where recreational marijuana dispensaries set up shop. Interestingly, crime did not go up in the vicinity of medical marijuana dispensaries. On street segments adjacent to recreational dispensaries, drug crimes went up by about 28% and “disorder” crimes (like criminal mischief and graffiti) rose 17%. But control data showed that drug and disorder crimes increased at similar rates on street segments without marijuana shops. The research compared crime in the three years before and after Colorado legalized recreational marijuana.
The researchers also did a cost-benefit analysis that found revenue from recreational marijuana largely offset costs associated with law enforcement and victim losses. For every $1 in costs related to property crime, the dispensaries recorded $309 in sales revenue and $13 in tax revenue. For every $1 in costs related to drug and disorder crimes, the shops generated $28 in sales and $1.18 in tax revenue. 
Connealy talked with The Graduate Center about his work. 
The Graduate Center: How does your background in math fit in with your criminal justice studies, and what drew you to CUNY? 
Connealy: What really drew me to John Jay and The Graduate Center program was that there are people doing really data-heavy work here. I’m interested in research design and statistics, and I want to apply that to crime and social justice issues. Generally, across policing, there has been a shift to more data-driven approaches. There’s more understanding that good data collection can lead to better enforcement practices. There are a lot of nuances in data, and the more you can unpack, the more you can learn, and the better you can answer questions with more of an impact to better serve people and their environments.

GC: How would you summarize the takeaway from the study?

Connealy: The study departs from the approach of similar research by analyzing the effect of marijuana dispensaries at a highly localized level. By focusing on the street segments that dispensaries are located on or directly adjacent to, we provide insight into the potential spatial effects that marijuana retail establishments can have on crime. The research highlights that dispensaries only demonstrated a significant impact on property crime and only on the street segments with a recreational dispensary. This may suggest that the impact of dispensaries on crime is largely limited to the dispensary location itself. A cost-benefit analysis also found the associated crime costs were largely offset by sales revenue. Monetary benefits were much less pronounced and barely cost effective when only considering tax revenue, though.

GC: How did you get interested in this topic and why did you pick Denver for your research? 

Connealy: The topic is especially timely as more states continue down a path towards marijuana legalization. Answering questions not only about the impact of marijuana usage, but about the impact that marijuana dispensaries have on crime, contributes to current policy debates. The present study provides insights specific to how revenue from recreational marijuana sales can offset the costs of a potential crime increase.
Denver was selected due to Colorado being the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, so the time period necessary for longitudinal research was achievable in Denver. Second, Denver has a robust open data portal and we were able to access other relevant data from the Denver Police Department Data Analysis Unit. Third, as I have done research specific to Denver before, the familiarity with the city and relevant datasets helped to streamline the research process.
GC:  Your Graduate Center profile states that you are interested in the spatial analysis of crime patterns, and systematic social observation. What does that mean?

Connealy: The spatial analysis of crime patterns refers to research that focuses on how crime concentrates in places. My interest lies with exploring where and why crime concentrates, and how aspects of the physical world and environment can help us to better understand crime and crime-related issues.
Systematic social observation is a research technique that allows for the incorporation of virtual mediums like Google Street View to conduct observations of an environment of interest. The methodology allows for explorations of places that are rigorous, replicable, and oftentimes remote in nature. Generally, a location is evaluated for certain characteristics or features of interest.
GC: How does being at CUNY compare with where you lived before?

Connealy: I grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and went to a small liberal arts college there. It was definitely a big shift from a college with 1,500 students in a town of 8,000 people to come to New York City.

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.

Submitted on: DEC 18, 2019

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