Boalt Student Wins Award for Best Paper

Photo: Ashley Rubin, a doctoral candidate at Boalt Hall School of Law, won the Law and Society Association's award for the top graduate student paper for her research on prison sentences.
Alexander Ritchie/Photo
Ashley Rubin, a doctoral candidate at Boalt Hall School of Law, won the Law and Society Association's award for the top graduate student paper for her research on prison sentences.

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Ashley Rubin has a recurring interest in prisons.

This interest, however, has gained her an award and national fame.

Rubin, a doctoral candidate at Boalt Hall School of Law, wrote a paper that has been selected by the Law and Society Association as the top graduate student paper across the country and across the world within the association's field. Her trip to the award ceremony in Chicago on May 30 will be paid for by the association, according to its website.

"I was super stoked to get the award," she said. "Honestly, I don't think it sunk in for a couple days and it still hasn't."

But Rubin said the plaque she will receive next week will signify more than just the honor: It signifies the more than four years that she spent researching within the topic area and the two years she spent on the paper alone.

Her paper focuses on how social and historical dynamics affected disparities in sentence lengths for prisoners and is based on data from over 6,000 inmates at Eastern State Penitentiary - a historic Philadelphia prison which dates back to the 1700s.

"Her paper is a sophisticated multivariate analysis of factors that account for variation of sentence lengths of prisoners in Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania in the early 19th century," law professor Malcolm Feeley, Rubin's former professor who nominated her paper, said in an e-mail. "She had to comb through records and assemble a database that was next to impossible to construct. Thus, her work demonstrates not only first rate historical archival research, but sophisticated quantitative social science analysis. Rarely do we find these two skill sets in the same person."

Society's attitude toward prisons and punishment - another topic addressed in her research - has changed greatly since the prison was first in use, Rubin said.

"When an inmate entered (the penitentiary), a hood was put over him, nobody knew him and his name was only written down in two places," she said. "Now, we're all about identifying former inmates through laws and databases, but back then it was about protecting their identity so that they could be integrated into the community again."

The 24-year-old aspiring professor said her interest in prisons began when she was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. She wanted to do research that would allow her to look into both legal and historical matters and found a large amount of information on the penitentiary.

In 2007, she won the campus Library Prize for Undergraduate Research for a paper on the role of religion at the same penitentiary from 1829 to 1849.

Rubin said she will continue to work on the paper about sentencing disparities, will try to get it published and hopes to turn her nearly four years of research on the topic into a book.

"It pretty much is: I do research in my spare time," she said. "I do research when I'm not supposed to be doing research. I just love research."

Her love of research is what made her focus on becoming a professor rather than becoming a lawyer, which she considered for many years, she said.

"Ever since I was little, my parents said I was going to be a lawyer. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but I didn't want to talk in front of people," she said. "After being a graduate student and teaching several classes, I'm not as afraid of being a professor."


Emma Anderson is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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