When S. David Mitchell leaves for work in the morning, he isn’t sure which hat to wear. Sometimes he is a law professor, and sometimes he is a sociologist. On most days he wears both hats at once—an interdisciplinary approach to research that seems to bode well. As an associate professor in MU’s School of Law, Mitchell’s teaching and research feed off each other, focusing on the intersection of society and the law. While his teaching covers topics ranging from torts and criminal justice administration—from “bail to jail”—the courses he gets most excited about involve his main area of research, including “Law and Society” and “Collateral Consequences of Sentencing.”
Mitchell’s research involves an area of law popularly referred to as felon disenfranchisement. That is, Mitchell looks at felon exclusion laws, which “that exclude ex-felons from being full citizens.” Often thought to mean one thing—the right of ex-felons to vote—felon disenfranchisement involves much more, including limits on the rights of ex-felons to serve on a jury, to have housing, to get educational loans and, in some jurisdictions, even to maintain parental rights.
One of the debates occurring within the scholarly community concerns whether there is a disproportionate impact of felon disenfranchisement laws, that is, how such laws affect some demographic groups more than others, especially African-American communities. If we consider, for instance, the disproportionate number of African-American men who are currently incarcerated or under the control of the criminal justice system at some point in time (about one-third of the African-American male community), it becomes clear that such laws do have a disparate impact on certain groups.
From professors and lawyers to the judges themselves, legal scholarship is continually cited and challenged. As for whom he is addressing when publishing his findings, Mitchell explains that “I write for a much larger audience,” including the general public as well as felons and ex-felons. “You have got to speak to both the scholar and the lay person,” he contends. “We do an injustice to our work when it’s not accessible to those individuals.”