If you could go back in time and decide in college that you were only going to study topics you were passionate about, what classes would you take? Would you choose the same career path or study something new? That’s what Dr. Ryan T. Shields did as an undergraduate at Villa Julie College, now Stevenson University, in Maryland. He changed his mind about majoring in Business Communication and transferred to the University of Baltimore, which had a program focused on his true interests: the scientific study of the nature, management, causes, consequences and prevention of criminal behavior, a field that bridges the behavioral sciences as well as law and policy.
After completing a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Criminal Justice at the University of Baltimore and working with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on a statewide effort to collect data used for violence prevention, Shields went on to pursue a PhD in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Florida State University before joining the Moore Center in 2012. His personal mission is to help people better understand how crime and punishment work.
“I want people to think differently about crime and punishment. The US is the most incarcerated country, and what we know now is that long-term incarceration doesn’t work. The impact of incarceration on crime rates is minimal. It’s not cost-effective, and there are long-standing negative impacts on families and communities.”
Shields’s current research focuses on the disparities that occur across socioeconomic status, race and sexual orientation classifications. He is committed to understanding inequalities in how sex crimes are processed with the ultimate goal of finding out how punishment could be more fair and effective.
“In our newest research project, I’m looking at cases where youth who committed sex offenses against victims of the same sex are treated differently than youth who commit offenses against victims of the opposite sex. I’d like to better understand how various characteristics come into play when these kids are charged with sex crimes.”
Shields believes more value should be given to prevention efforts and more attention paid to whom we punish and why. He believes that without a stronger focus on prevention, we aren’t addressing the core components that lead to sex offenses and other crimes.
“To value prevention, we have to think differently about people who commit crimes. Currently, we have an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality, where ‘we’ don’t commit crimes, ‘they’ do. It’s easy to view these offenders as monsters. But we can’t prevent monsters from hurting us. Monsters are inhuman and unpredictable; people are not. I think we need to manage our need for retribution, recognize offenders as people and begin to view crime as preventable.”
The Moore Center is fortunate to have Shields as part of a team that believes that child sexual abuse is indeed preventable. With his guidance in research projects and focus on education, he is poised to change attitudes and beliefs about which policies are fair, effective and benefit our communities.
Follow Ryan on Twitter and watch his recent presentation, "Safe Harbor Laws: State-Level Approaches in Addressing Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children" from our 2015 annual symposium.