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Philosophy & Social Policy Conference Honors Professor

Photo of Jeffrey Reiman by Vanessa Robertson

This year’s McDowell Conference on Social Policy, held by the Department of Philosophy and Religion on Friday, October 28, will carry a different kind of meaning for the department. This year the conference, now in its 20th year, celebrates the extraordinary work of the William Fraser McDowell Professor of Philosophy, Jeffrey Reiman, and the 30th anniversary of his groundbreaking book, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, which—as it goes into its tenth edition—has come to be a fundamental text for the study of criminology and social policy.

While normally the William Fraser McDowell Professor of Philosophy is responsible for organizing this conference, Professor Ellen Feder has taken on the role this year to best honor Reiman’s work. “When this book first came out, philosophy was seen as something very separate from public policy,” says Feder. “The kind of writing Professor Reiman was doing wouldn’t have been welcome in a traditional philosophy department.” Feder says that Reiman is responsible for creating a bridge between philosophy and social policy that has ultimately been beneficial for both fields.

Reiman was involved in the design of the Department of Philosophy and Religion’s master’s program in philosophy and social policy, as well as the department’s joint master’s program with the School of International Service in ethics, peace, and global affairs. The undergraduate major Reiman helped to create in the School of Public Affairs, an interdisciplinary major in communications, legal institutions, economics, and government, otherwise known as CLEG, remains one of the most popular majors in the School of Public Affairs. “This conference celebrates all that Professor Reiman has contributed to the university,” says Feder.

Professor Jeffrey Reiman began his AU career in 1970 at what was then called the Center for the Administration of Justice, now known as the Department of Justice, Law, and Society. After holding joint positions in both the School of Public Affairs and the Department of Philosophy and Religion, Professor Reiman joined the Department of Philosophy and Religion full time in 1988, serving as director of the master’s program in philosophy and social policy. In 1990, he was named the William Fraser McDowell Professor of Philosophy, focusing his work on theoretical and applied ethics as well as political and legal philosophy, in addition to serving as an advisor to hundreds of students since his appointment.

Over the years, Reiman has edited The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison to reflect important changes to the criminal justice system. “The fact that the book is still read and thought about 30 years later shows that the ethical problems associated with imprisonment in this country still exist,” says Reiman. “As philosophers, we try to reconcile social justice with criminal justice.” The book has become a flagship textbook in countless criminology, philosophy, and social justice classrooms across the country.

Reiman says that while the fundamental problems with the American prison system remain the same, American criminal justice and culture have changed over the years, and so has his book. According to Reiman, “in the past, if you committed some sort of white-collar crime, you very rarely spent time in jail.”

He also cites the fact that while crime rates have gone down since the book’s initial publication, the American prison system is still bursting at the seams. “One in fifty men between the ages of 18-60 are currently in prison,” says Reiman. “There was a giant escalation in imprisonment between 1980 and 2000, largely for nonviolent, often drug-related crimes, and that has completely changed the way we see the criminal justice system.”

This year’s conference brings together scholars in both criminology and philosophy from universities across the country. Several presentations will focus on different interpretations of Reiman’s book and how its theories can be applied to various fields of criminal justice. These presentations include: “Reiman on Crime and Typical Crime,” and “Globalization and the New World Order: The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Deported.”  As a unique part of the conference, Professor Reiman will personally respond to each presentation.

In order to help students prepare to attend the conference, the department has offered a one-credit colloquium for undergraduates in philosophy focusing on Professor Reiman’s work and the connections between philosophy and social policy. “Colloquia in our department are designed to provide a different sort of experience than may be typical in a philosophy classroom,” says Feder, who has been leading the colloquium. “The occasion of the McDowell Conference is an ideal opportunity to explore philosophical and social questions to which we may not generally attend.”

The 20th Annual McDowell Conference will take place from 1-6 p.m. on Friday, October 28, in the Butler Boardroom. For more information, visit the conference Website.