By Manon Snyder
Laura Abrams, chair of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare, was among six professors to receive the inaugural Public Impact Research Awards from the UCLA Office of Research & Creative Activities.
Established in collaboration with the UCLA Centennial Celebration but put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the awards recognize work that has clear and immediate benefits to local and international communities.
Honorees with a UCLA Luskin connection included Abrams; Dana Cuff, professor of architecture, urban design and urban planning; and Kelly Lytle Hernández, professor of history, African American studies and urban planning. Public Impact Research Award recipients receive $10,000 prizes.
During an award ceremony on June 1, Abrams recounted the story of how she and her co-author Elizabeth Barnert of the Geffen School of Medicine came to do the research that led to the award.
“We heard a story of a 5-year old child who was prosecuted for a curfew violation, and we set our sights on preventing this from happening again,” Abrams told an audience that included UCLA Luskin benefactor Renee Luskin. “As a social worker and a pediatrician, we were shocked to note that in California, like nearly half of all U.S. states, the law did not shield young children from being brought into the justice system.”
They were told that it would be difficult to change a law that had been on the books since the early days of the child welfare codes. Other researchers dismissed the topic as not particularly important.
“Yet we persisted,” Abrams said.
They conducted a mixed-methods study that showed setting a minimum age at which a child can be prosecuted in the juvenile justice system is not only better for children, but also politically viable. Their research also showed that, starting at younger ages, racial inequities were already problematic, particularly for Black children.
Their once “impossible policy goal” became a reality when then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 439 into law in 2018, ensuring that no child under age 12 in the state of California can be legally prosecuted, even in the juvenile justice system, except in very rare circumstances.
View photos from the event:
Abrams is a professor of social welfare at UCLA Luskin, and Barnert is an associate professor of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
“I consider this project and the social policy impact to be the most important achievement in my career,” Abrams said. “I hope to inspire future scholars to conduct research that they are passionate about and that makes a difference.”
Advocates have since partnered with Abrams and Barnert to lead other states to pass or consider similar legislation. Thanks to their research, professional groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, now endorse a minimum age of 12 for juvenile court jurisdiction; their research was also used to draft a congressional bill that would set the minimum age for prosecuting youth in the federal criminal legal system at 12.
“I believe in a healthy and just society where all children have the support they need to thrive,” Barnert said.
OTHER AWARDEES CONNECTED TO UCLA LUSKIN
Cuff, based at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, is founding director of cityLAB, an award-winning research center that studies how urbanism and architecture can contribute to a more just built environment. Based on cityLAB studies, Cuff and her team created the BIHOME — a full-scale demonstration of a compact dwelling unit designed to be located in backyards to meet rising housing demands — and BruinHub, a “home away from home” at the John Wooden Center for commuter and housing-insecure students. Cuff co-authored a 2016 bill to advance the implementation of backyard homes in suburbs, and is working on design and legislation for affordable housing to be co-located with public schools.
“At one of the finest public universities in the world, cityLAB-UCLA and our students at architecture and urban design have the privileged platform to demonstrate how to build a socially just, sustainable future,” Cuff said. “I am committed to design research that brings those new possibilities to the public.”
Lytle Hernández is the Thomas E. Lifka Endowed Chair in History and faculty director of Million Dollar Hoods, a big-data initiative that uses police and jail records to examine incarceration disparities in Los Angeles neighborhoods. Launched in 2016, the initiative’s research is being used for advocacy and legislative change, such as a report on the Los Angeles School Police Department that helped stop the arrest of children ages 14 and under in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Another report was critical for the passage of California legislation that ended money bail for nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors. Beyond using data to support new policies, Million Dollar Hoods uncovers and preserves stories from Los Angeles residents who have dealt with the policing system.
OTHER UCLA HONOREES
Two UCLA faculty members without a UCLA Luskin association were also honored with Public Impact Research Awards:
- Alex Hall is a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the UCLA College, whose research is focused on producing high-resolution projections for climate modeling, particularly in California. Hall extends his expertise beyond campus, working with Los Angeles water management agencies to help ensure the sustainability of water resources for the region. Hall is also working to understand the future of wildfires in the state. He co-founded the Climate and Wildfire Institute to champion collaboration between scientists, stakeholders and policymakers in the use of quantitative data on wildfires to shape management efforts in the western United States.
“We are in the midst of a sustainability crisis, and everyone must do their part to address it,” Hall said. “Nothing makes me happier than marshaling scientific resources to address some of the deepest sustainability challenges in California.”
- Thomas Smith is a distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and founder of the UCLA Congo Basin Institute. As UCLA’s first foreign affiliate branch, the Congo Basin Institute works with organizations and the local government and communities to find solutions to environmental and developmental problems facing Central Africa. Continuing his commitment to conservation efforts in Africa, Smith is the founding president of the Conservation Action Research Network, which has provided more than $500,000 in grants to young African scholars. Smith is also the founding director of UCLA’s Center for Tropical Research, which has conducted research in 45 countries to understand biodiversity in the tropics. He also co-founded the Bird Genoscape Project, which uses genomics to map declining bird populations’ migration patterns and how they can inform where to prioritize conservation efforts.
“With accelerating climate change and loss of biodiversity we are rapidly approaching tipping points for many of the world’s ecosystems,” Smith said. “Our team is making a difference by focusing on science-based solutions to mitigate threats to help save the planet.