Changemaker: Steven Keener

Criminal justice scholar Steven Keener shares his passion for the transformational power of education

Steven Keener
Steven Keener

Steven Keener (M.S.’13/GPA, PPAD ’17/GPA) is the co-founder and inaugural director of the Center for Crime, Equity, and Justice Research and Policy at Christopher Newport University, which brings students and faculty together with local and state leaders, as well as community activists, to conduct research projects and produce policy recommendations.

Keener, who launched the center in September 2021, said it sprang from a desire to build upon the expertise of myriad faculty — those within criminology and outside of it — who were engaged in helping nonprofits, policymakers and other organizations in the Hampton Roads community with similar projects. 

In the short time since its establishment, the center has attracted considerable visibility. 

“We have many excellent researchers who are working with nonprofits, policymakers and others to build research projects,” Keener said. “With the creation of the center, we wanted to send the unequivocal message that this work and its impact on the greater community is valued at CNU.” 

Keener was raised in the Allegheny Highlands of Clifton Forge, Virginia, a quaint town (population: 3,444) known for its pristine waters, trout streams and breathtaking mountain views of the Virginia-West Virginia border. 

Only about 9% of Clifton Forge residents have attended college, but Keener, a talented high school student and star baseball player — a Louisville Slugger pre-season All-American who was twice named Virginian Review Player of the Year — was privileged to grow in the shadow of parents with high expectations.

“My father, Gary, is a career higher education administrator, and it was he who predicted that I might be a professor,” Keener said. “He saw, well before anyone, that the flexibility and autonomy of teaching and controlling my research tracked with my personality.” 

After high school, Keener attended Christopher Newport University, where he majored in political science and played as a starting infielder for the Captains. By happenstance, his political science program at CNU housed criminal justice courses at the time. A mentor suggested he take a few courses in criminology, which ignited a passion that once and for all set the path toward his future as a college professor. Soon thereafter Keener began his graduate studies at VCU, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

“I fell in love with VCU and Richmond right away,” Keener said. 

In recent years, Keener’s own research has focused on the structural barriers to re-entry for previously incarcerated parents and the intersection between mental health and the criminal  justice system. 

He also teaches an enormously popular immersive course on mental health and criminal justice. Undergraduate students in the course engage with local mental health advocates and shadow a behavioral health docket in Newport News, one of just 13 in the state, to better understand the structural inequities within the penal system. Students even debrief with General District Judge Matthew W. Hoffman, who presides over the docket. 

Fall 2022 / In this issue