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Student Spotlight

Kait Harger

Kait Harger

Criminals, Prisoners and Ex-Cons – Oh My!: Ph.D. student examines the economics of crime and recidivism.

June 30, 2014

Recidivism(n.) – a person's relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has found a high rate of recidivism among released prisoners – in fact, two-thirds of released prisoners are re-arrested and one-half are re-incarcerated within three years of their release. This revolving prison door affects us all in one form or another; measured somewhat intangibly by the level of crime in your neighborhood, your taxpayer dollars that fund prisons, or maybe even on a personal level if you know somebody who has fallen prey to the cycle.

But the effects felt by individuals certainly aren't the only effects that occur. Economic ramifications that touch society as a whole due to recidivism are abundant. And for the past two years, economics Ph.D. candidate Kaitlyn (Wolf) Harger has been absolutely fascinated by it.

"I attended a WVU talk where Cory Booker (former mayor of Newark, N.J.) spoke. He was talking about how his city had an extremely high recidivism rate, and he was trying to figure out what to do concerning employment," Harger said. "I was shocked that people would return to incarceration so quickly to such a high degree. So, I decided to look into it further." 

Her dissertation focuses broadly on the economics of crime and recidivism.

"Urban economics looks how crime affects cities and entrepreneurship and individuals themselves. But also, there are labor market consequences. People that could be in the labor force are returning to prison," she explained. "My first chapter looks at how visible tattoos affect recidivism rates. Assuming that when you'll be hired (for a job) as an ex-con, employers are looking for other signals that you might not be reliable, one of which may be visible tattoos. My second chapter is about how correctional officer unions shape crime policy." 

Harger, from Frederick, Md., has a year left in the Ph.D. program, and her accomplishments thus far have been phenomenal. She's been honored with numerous accolades and has several manuscripts under review, working papers and a publication with her dissertation advisor, Dr. Joshua Hall. She's excited to do more research and, thanks to a grant, she will be able to do just that.

"I received a Horowitz Foundation grant, which give me time to write an additional paper that will hopefully allow me to write a third chapter (for my dissertation.) I'm excited," Harger said. She hopes to write about how the distance between where one is incarcerated and where one lives affects recidivism. 

But the grant isn't all she has to be excited about right now. In the spring, Harger was chosen from several rounds of selection as WVU's representative at the 5th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences. This will allow Harger to participate in an open exchange of economic expertise and inspire cross-cultural and inter-generational encounters among economists from all over the world.

"In August, I'll go to Lindau, Germany, for a week of hearing lectures and participating in discussion. And, I'll get to go sightseeing with Nobel laureates," she said. It is truly an extraordinary opportunity.

Harger has enjoyed her time at WVU, especially the last two years. She has worked closely with faculty including Dr. Amanda Ross, Dr. Andrew Young and Dr. Hall.

"I have had very positive relationships (with my professors.) Dr. Ross and Dr. Hall have been mentors to me. Dr. Ross and I worked on a paper together, which has given me a chance to learn how to improve your work and get published," she said.

Harger is recently married, and although she has little free time outside the realm of economics, she and her husband Max have made time to enjoy the outdoors and love kayaking on Cheat Lake. Harger will graduate in May 2015 and hopes to teach at the university level.