Robert Stewart

Democracy Cohort
Sociological Criminologist

Robert Stewart is researching the civic identities of disenfranchised Americans.

Robert Stewart defended his doctoral dissertation almost 11 years to the day after he walked out of prison. He began his educational journey while incarcerated, and after his release, worked his way through his Associate’s degree, BA, MA, and Ph.D in Sociology. As a researcher and educator at the University of Maryland, he highlights the experiences of those who’ve been through the criminal legal system, for both academic and public audiences. His work asks important questions not just about crime and punishment, but about social membership, citizenship, and civic inclusion.

Robert created the “Criminal Records and College Admissions” project, examining how criminal history is used in college admissions and the implications for social mobility. A long-time member of the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, he’s also described the effects of criminal court costs, and tested how a criminal record restricts relationships and parenting. But his newest work is his most ambitious: the first survey of system-affected persons.

More than 5.2 million Americans are barred from voting because of felony disenfranchisement laws. While this group is larger than the San Francisco metro area, data on their lives is scarce. Politicians, academics, and the public routinely reduce them to a single dimension — their criminal record — perpetuating their social and political invisibility.

Robert’s project as an Emerson Collective Fellow will be to fill in the gaps, by engaging a nationally representative sample in surveys and focus groups. Modeled on the General Social Survey and American National Election Studies, this work will reveal their political beliefs, educational attainment, and attitudes on policy, religion, race, and family. This survey will give the first clear picture, while building a dataset for researchers and advocates.