It was a friend returning to prison that led Mary Hampo into the world of criminal justice.
“I wasn’t taking any criminal justice classes,” Hampo says.
Hampo was a Master Public Affairs graduate student at O’Neill, focusing on policy analysis and refugees.
Yet her friend’s return to prison left her with a lot of questions.
“I wanted to know why his time in prison the first time didn’t work,” she says. “Why was he going back? It should have been fixed. Something should have happened while he was there.”
Hampo knew she needed to find the answers to her questions. And she started with O’Neill Criminal Justice Associate Professor Eric Grommon.
“I had never spoken to him before, so it was kind of intimidating,” she admits laughing.
The pair sat down and started talking. Grommon helped her gain a foundational knowledge of the field.
“I had to start from the very ground level because I knew nothing,” she says.
But she wanted to get involved, she wanted to help—she just didn’t know how. She says Grommon was patient with her, helped her find her focus, and invited her to research meetings for the Center for Health and Justice Research at the IU Public Policy Institute.
She started attending the meetings. In fact, she went to every meeting for an entire semester, just to listen and learn. Then, she wanted to join the CHJR team. Even though she was new to criminal justice research, she says the CHJR team taught her the building blocks of research and helped her learn about the issues as they went along.
The team also helped her see a different side to the criminal justice system—one that included members of law enforcement working to change a flawed system.
“That gave me a little faith because I saw there are people in this system who want research-driven reform and solutions,” Hampo admits.
In January 2020, she joined a project led by O’Neill Assistant Professor Lauren Magee and Grommon. They were creating a database focused on nonfatal gun violence in Indianapolis using only open-source reports from local news outlets. Dubbed the Indianapolis Gun Violence Project, they use that information to supplement official records and provide real-time updates on trends and patterns to community groups.
“The long-term goal is to provide information that allows groups to quickly allocate community resources to exactly where they need to go,” Hampo explains. “Instead of waiting until the end of the year to know where there was a hub of violence, we can know two weeks later.”
Hampo was part of the project’s launch and says it wasn’t easy to get it off the ground. She admits the first year was challenging.
“That was a hard year,” she says.
The team was new and still learning. But adding more students and support streamlined their project into what it is today—a community-centric research project and partnership that Hampo is proud to be a part of.
“This project made me feel like my time at O’Neill wasn’t just about me absorbing information and knowledge,” she says. “It was also about me giving something back to the community and to scholarly research.”
She says those contributions likely aren’t at the forefront of students’ minds when they begin their education at O’Neill.
“You think this will be an experience where you learn and you gain, but opportunities like this are very unique,” she says. “It makes you feel accomplished to say you contributed to research and had a direct impact on making the community better.”
She says her work also changed how she views the criminal justice system and the people involved in it.
“It is so much less black and white than you think, which is such a downer,” she admits. “But there are a lot of people in the system who are working to reform it and want to do good. It’s very easy to think every person in the system is bad or every person in this broken system is a broken person. But I’ve learned it’s not true.”
That’s why she encourages other students to seek out those research opportunities, no matter what field of study they’re pursuing—O’Neill faculty will help you find your focus and your future.
“My research was nonexistent until Dr. Grommon helped me—I didn’t even know what research was,” she says. “The professors at O’Neill want you to succeed in a way that’s not just talk. So many professors say they want you to succeed, but I’ve never had people mean it the way they mean it at O’Neill.”
That hands-on approach from faculty helped shift Hampo’s understanding of the criminal justice system, the impact she could have on her community, and how she will approach her future career.
“I now understand I can’t be a leading voice on criminal justice reform because I’ve never experienced it personally, but that doesn’t mean I can’t help,” she says with a smile. “I can do the research. I can look at trends. I can write policy briefs to inform those in power. We all have a role to play in reforming broken systems and this is part of mine.”