GSE Professor Employs Civic Education to Improve Learning in Criminal Justice System

Ben Justice

Learning does not happen just inside the walls of a school. That motto is a guiding philosophy for Dr. Benjamin Justice and a key driver of his research.

“Schooling is not synonymous with education, and it should not be, and I think that is a throughline in all my work. School is not the only place to learn, and maybe not even the most important place to learn,” Dr. Justice said, a professor in the Department of Educational Theory, Policy and Administration.

One example is Dr. Justice’s two-year project with the New Jersey Department of Corrections, using action research to help teachers of incarcerated people who qualify for K-12 education in prison. In the first year of the project, Dr. Justice and his team work with teachers on the idea of trauma—what it is, how it works, and how it can affect them. The teachers then develop their own research projects and make recommendations based on their findings. The second year of the project will focus on developing new methods of trauma-informed instructional strategies.

Dr. Justice is also part of a team working with New Jersey courts so Garden State children can better understand how justice is adjudicated in the state. Led by GSE doctoral student Alison Stein, the team is writing a curriculum for use in New Jersey schools about how the courts work and function in a democracy.

Dr. Justice’s work outside the classroom furthers the GSE’s mission of service and equity in education. He said the GSE produces a lot of high-quality, internationally acclaimed research that shapes how teachers teach, students learn, and leaders enact policy. “We also engage with New Jersey, a lot. We train teachers with high-quality teacher preparation programs, and now that’s more important than ever,” he said.

Dr. Justice comes from a family of teachers and was raised with a belief that each person has a responsibility to serve in some way. “I grew up with the expectation that people owe something to each other and society,” he said. He started his career as a high school history teacher. “While teaching at the high school level was very gratifying in terms of the social mission I was interested in, my frustrations were that I was not able to pursue my personal intellectual interests,” Dr. Justice said. “And I think that’s a challenge for all teachers.”

With a desire to learn more about history but also stay in education, Dr. Justice earned his Ph.D. in education at Stanford University with the goal of helping people understand the history of education and how to consider service through teaching as a career path. He also holds a master’s in history from Stanford University and a bachelor’s in history from Yale University.

Dr. Justice landed at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, attracted by the strength of the GSE and the university’s history department, plus Rutgers’ designation as an R1 research institution. “I saw a place for myself,” Dr. Justice said. “There was no one there doing what I’m doing. Research professors have a very blessed existence.”

As much as he loves his research, Dr. Justice also relishes teaching GSE students who can compare with the students he met at Yale and Stanford. “We have students who are every bit as strong as those students,” Dr. Justice said. “They are hardscrabble, scrappy and they work very hard.”

During the 2023-2024 academic year, Dr. Justice will be on sabbatical as a visiting fellow at the Russell Sage Foundation in Manhattan. Dr. Justice will be working with his co-author Tracey L. Meares, a professor at Yale Law School. The duo is writing a book on how experiences with criminal legal processing shape civic identity, and how people think about relationships to the state, law, and authority. The book will focus on policing, adjudication, and pretrial detention.

Dr. Justice said, “There’s a lot of talk about reform or abolition of our current processes and institutions. Trauma-informed instructional strategies as a form of civic education in criminal justice can add to important current conversations.”

Read more success stories in the 2023 Rutgers Graduate School of Education Impact Report.