Elsa Chen

Associate Professor of Political Science, Santa Clara University

Areas of Expertise

  • Mandatory minimum sentencing
  • Sentencing reform
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Prisoner reentry

Key Findings

  • Eligible felons are more likely to receive Three Strikes sentences in counties with larger Latino populations. MORE
  • Higher unemployment rates are associated with more stringent application of the Three Strikes law. MORE
  • Discretion is widely exercised by elected prosecutors and judges in the administration of Three Strikes. MORE
  • Record clearance (or expungement) reduced ex-offenders’ likelihood of committing future crimes, and increased their chances for successful reintegration into society. MORE
  • For ex-offenders, expungement reduced external barriers for success – including increasing job opportunities and access to housing and government aid. MORE
  • Latino populations experienced racially biased sentencing in their favor, resulting in fewer third-strike sentences than other ethnicities. MORE
  • Sentencing disparities were generally greater for property and drug offenses than for violent crimes. MORE


Elsa Chen, Associate Professor of Political Science at Santa Clara University, is an expert in criminal justice sentencing policy reform, racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing outcome, the effects of mandatory minimum sentencing policies, and prisoner reentry.

Chen co-chairs the American Society of Criminology’s Division on People of Color and Crime and serves on the US Dept. of Justice, Office of Justice Programs’ Science Advisory Board and the ASC Policy Committee. Before SCU, she worked as a policy analyst in the criminal justice program at RAND.

Her work has been published in numerous scholarly journals including Justice QuarterlySocial Science Quarterly, the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, the Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, and (forthcoming) Punishment and Society.

Chen received her Ph.D. in political science and M.A. in American politics and quantitative methods from the University of California, Los Angeles. She received her M.P.P. from Harvard University and A.B. from Princeton University.

Follow Elsa on Twitter: @echen408