UCSB sociology assistant professor Victor Rios recently received the American Society of Criminology’s New Scholar Award.

The award recognizes scholars who advance the literature on people of color and crime. Rios’ research focused on the effect of criminalization on urban youth in Oakland.
Rios said his interest in the field was sparked by his own traumatic experiences — witnessing the murders of his friend and uncle on two distinct occasions.

“I personally was a victim of violence growing up,” Rios said in an e-mail. “My best friend was murdered in front of me when we were both 15 years old. These experiences, of violence and law enforcement neglect, led me to want to understand what leads people to commit violence and what are the best practices in reducing violent behavior.”

Sociology professor John Sutton said Rios was recognized for the unique subject matter of his research.

“He has been doing really different work in his field about how legal surveillance is dominating the lives of a lot of youth,” Sutton said. “There’s nothing like his work out there, which is why he’s gained a lot of attention from scholars around the country.”

Rios shadowed “delinquent” youth for three years to distinguish a community’s perception of violence from actual gang behavior. Instead of already possessing violent tendencies, Rios said youth are often forced into violent behavior through criminal labels.

However, Rios said most of the teenagers he encountered were able to drastically alter their lives once removed from violent neighborhoods.

“If you provide a young person with an opportunity to change their lives around … whatever can stand as a surrogate for the lack of love, affirmation and belonging that many of them have in their lives … this young person will, nine times out of ten, ride that opportunity like a wave on Campus Point,” he said. “So I found that even the kids who had been labeled thugs, gang-bangers, irreparable criminals, were able to change their lives around and contribute to the community when they were given opportunities to do so.”

Sociology associate professor G. Reginald Daniel said Rios has become an expert in the field of criminology.

“Professor Rios’ ethnographic research, among other things, spotlights the pervasive criminalization and surveillance of men of color — particularly African Americans and Chicanos — in our society,” Daniel said. “Professor Rios’ own background brings an authority of experience to the topic that provides an insider’s perspective without, however, undermining the objectivity necessary to convey the sociological import of the topic.”

Having already researched youth in metropolitan areas, Rios is currently observing students in classroom settings.  Rios has spearheaded a project to investigate the achievement gap between white and Latino students at Santa Barbara High School.

Rios teaches sociology courses that include Chican@ and Latin@ youth and juvenile justice. His book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Youth, will be released in June of 2011.