by Raymond Devine
A beneficial partnership between Chestnut Hill College and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts came to fruition this year and resulted in criminal justice students creating a public survey to determine the level of public trust in the appellate judge election process.
Students’ efforts throughout the project will grant them a competitive edge as they enter the workforce, said Lauren Barrow, associate professor of criminal justice and chair of the department of justice studies at the College, whose criminal justice class produced the survey.
“From the students’ perspective, this experience related to their academic field of criminal justice,” Barrow said. “They acquired real world experience, which they can use on their applications and resumes after graduation as they begin to pursue their career.”
The partnership between the College and PMC all started with “Court Basics 101,” an event, held on campus in November, in which Maida Milone, the president of PMC and an attorney, presented an educational workshop for students that focused on the judicial system and opportunities for reform. It was at this event that Barrow met Milone, and the two soon began exploring ways to further the partnership between the College and PMC, a statewide nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to ensuring that Pennsylvanians elect qualified and impartial judges.
Out of this workshop also came abundant opportunities for Barrow’s students, who eventually met with PMC representative Thomas Pietryla. Pietryla had been mulling over an idea about discovering how much voters understood about judicial elections. He thought the most important topics surrounding PA’s judiciary pertained to the public’s awareness of and trust in the system. As such, he wanted to know how informed the public was on, among other things, the frequency of judicial elections, the difference between election versus retention, and the purview and power of the courts to which people elect judges.
Pietryla had the idea to discover the level of public trust in Pennsylvania’s judiciary by surveying citizens, with the answers then being used to determine how to craft a campaign for merit selection. Given merit selection is a statewide issue, he thought a survey population representative of Philadelphia, both politically and demographically, would best suit the project’s objectives.
Back in the classroom, students sought to create the most efficient survey to find the answers to Pietryla’s questions. Barrow guided the effort, introducing the ins-and-outs of survey construction, question ordering, exhaustive and exclusive questioning, and validity challenges. This was, for the most part, brand-new material for the students, she said.
Staff from PMC met with students throughout the spring semester to help them construct the survey to ensure their questions yielded the intended answers. Students worked collaboratively, acquired research method skills, executed the survey instrument, and conducted data entry, cleaning and analysis using SPSS software. It should be noted that students were directly involved in surveying citizens of voting age. The course ended with a final student-authored research report provided to PMC.
Most of this project, including the extensive work to craft a comprehensive survey, was beyond the pale of a typical college class. And Barrow’s efforts throughout the semester created a bridge between PMC, her students, the community, and Chestnut Hill College. So, to borrow a phrase from competitive sports, this work starts them on the road to being playmakers.
For more information, please visit www.pmconline.org.