Penn State Lehigh Valley graduate dedicated to working on bail reform

A student smiling next to a research poster

Elizabeth Wagner, who graduated in May with a degree in rehabilitation and human services, took a special interest in how bail is set. She presented her research at the Penn Sate Lehigh Valley Undergraduate Research Symposium and received the 2024 Outstanding Student in Rehabilitation and Human Services award.     


Credit: Penn State Lehigh Valley

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — Elizabeth Wagner’s involvement in research was an unexpected turn in her academic path at Penn State Lehigh Valley. Four years ago, after missing her high school graduation due to the COVID-19 pandemic and transitioning to college classes over Zoom, Wagner embarked on her college career with tentative hopes of working in the human services field.

However, her aspirations took a profound shift when she enrolled in "RHS402," a class in her rehabilitation and human services (RHS) major taught by Andjela Kaur, assistant teaching professor of RHS, and Jen Jarson, head librarian. Assigned to develop a research proposal centered around the plight of a 16 year old from a low-income background who couldn't afford bail after being accused of a crime, Wagner was dumbfounded. She thought something was missing. Considering herself a logical thinker, the disparity she encountered — where individuals could languish behind bars awaiting trial simply due to economic constraints — struck her deeply. She said she had always known people are innocent until proven guilty. 

“I was shocked by such a flaw in our system,” she said.

Motivated by this realization, Wagner decided to learn everything she could about the bail system in the United States.

"I spent hours and hours in the library," she said.

Her efforts were recognized by both Kaur and Jarson, who encouraged her to apply for a Penn State Lehigh Valley Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) Fellowship to further her investigations.

"We were extremely impressed with Liz's scholarly dedication to this issue and her passion for resolving a fundamental injustice in our system," Kaur said.

Wagner won the JEDI Fellowship with a proposal to go directly to the source of bail setting by interviewing judges, which would help to fill a gap in the existing literature. Because her research was qualitatively based and involved interviewing human subjects, she needed approval from Penn State’s Institutional Review Board (IRB).

“The IRB process was tedious and time consuming,” she said. “But I learned invaluable lessons regarding confidentiality and data security.”  

Among her key discoveries was the nuanced perspective of judges on bail setting, with a wide range of opinions on the need for reform. She also found that some judges were more open to sharing their experiences and views, while others were not.

“The fact that bail involves a complex and individualized formula reinforces the need to understand the diversity of judicial experiences and attitudes,” Wagner said.   

When questioned about the challenges of balancing research with other academic responsibilities, Elizabeth admitted to the extra demands on her schedule as a JEDI Fellow.

“It was a lot of work and even though I really did not have time for it, I made the time, and I did it,” she said.  

Interviewing judges was “nerve-wracking,” she said, “but it was also so exciting to be learning from the very source of where bail gets established.” 

Additionally, she said “being a research fellow really pushed me. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and my mentors, Andjela and Jen, were amazing. I did not know anything about bail before I started. Now I know so much and am even thinking about law school, which would give me valuable tools to help change the way the bail system works."

Wagner, who graduated in May, presented her research at the Penn State Lehigh Valley Undergraduate Research Symposium and received the 2024 Outstanding Student in Rehabilitation and Human Services award.