James B. Jacobs

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James Barrett Jacobs (born 1947) is the Warren E. Burger Professor of Constitutional Law and the Courts at New York University School of Law, where he has been a faculty member since 1982. He is a specialist in criminal law, criminal procedure and criminal justice.


Jacobs was born in 1947 in Mt. Vernon, New York. He attended public school in Mt. Vernon. He earned his BA (1969) at Johns Hopkins University, where he majored in sociology and minored in Russian. After completing basic training (U.S. Army Reserves), he spent most of 1970 in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow.

In the fall of 1970, Jacobs began study at the University of Chicago Law School. During the summer of 1971 he served as a research assistant for the eminent criminal law professor Norval Morris. Professor Morris enjoyed a close relationship with the Illinois Director of Corrections, Peter Bensinger, and arranged for Jacobs to spend his 1972 summer doing research at Stateville Penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois. Jacobs’ research, focusing on how several large Chicago-based street gangs operated within the prison, resulted in "Street Gangs Behind Bars", published in the sociology journal Social Problems in 1973. "Gangs Behind Bars" was the first scholarly article to deal with gangs in prison and launched Jacobs' career as a criminologist.

After graduating magna cum laude from University of Chicago School of Law in June 1973, Jacobs became a full-time PhD student in the University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology. The renowned sociologist Morris Janowitz was the chair of his PhD. committee. Under Janowitz’ guidance, the gangs in prison research grew into a dissertation (PhD 1975) and a book, Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society,[1] now regarded as a classic in American penology.

In the fall, 1975, Jacobs joined Cornell University as assistant professor of law and sociology. He also met Jan Sweeney, they married in 1977. Their first child, Thomas, was born in 1978 and their second child, Sophi, was born in 1980. Jacobs received tenure in both departments in 1980, but subsequently switched his appointment full-time into the law school, where he taught criminal law.

In the 1982-83 academic year, Jacobs served as a visiting professor of law at New York University School of Law. At the end of that academic year, he resigned from Cornell University to become professor of law at NYU and director of the NYU Center for Research in Crime and Justice. He has been a member of the NYU law faculty ever since, regularly teaching criminal law, criminal procedure and such other courses as federal criminal law, juvenile justice, state and specialty criminal justice area seminars on such topics as drunk driving, corruption and corruption control, prison law and policy, labor racketeering and organized crime control, the drug war, privatization of criminal justice, criminal records policy and jurisprudence, cyber-crime and asset forfeiture and money laundering.

In 1995, he served as Fulbright teaching fellow at the University of Cape Town South Africa. In 1988, Jacobs was visiting professor of law at Columbia University. In 1998, then dean (and later NYU president) John Sexton awarded Jacobs the Warren E. Burger Chair of Constitutional Law and the Courts.

With the support and encouragement of NYU alumnus, Alan Fortunoff, Jacobs launched the monthly Fortunoff Criminal Justice Colloquium in 1983. Fifteen years later, when Fortunoff died, the distinguished criminal defense lawyer, Jack Hoffinger, became the colloquium’s benefactor. The multidisciplinary Criminal Justice Colloquium meets each month during the academic year. It features a public lecture by a leading criminal justice or criminology scholar, followed by questions and discussion. The Hoffinger Colloquium serves as a magnet for criminal justice professors, researchers, policymakers and practitioners from the metropolitan area and beyond.


In 1989, Jacobs published Drunk Driving: An American Dilemma,[2] a wide ranging jurisprudential and policy analysis of drunk driving as a social phenomenon, criminal offense and target of socio-legal control. He also took up a multi-year consulting position with the New York State Organized Crime Task Force, whose director was Ronald Goldstock. Jacobs worked with the OCTF on a study and investigation of Cosa Nostra penetration of the NYC construction industry. The investigation led to numerous convictions, the study was published in 1990 as Corruption and Racketeering In The New York City Construction Industry: The Final Report of the New York State Organized Task Force.[3] It was the first of five books that Jacobs was to write over the next twenty years on various aspects of the government’s legal attack on the Cosa Nostra.

Jacobs has also written books on political corruption, hate crime, and gun control. His most recent book is The Eternal Criminal Record[4], the research for which was supported by a 2012-13 Guggenheim Fellowship. He has also written well over one hundred articles on diverse criminal law and criminology topics, most recently on the jurisprudential and policy issues related to the construction, maintenance, dissemination and discrimination based on criminal records. Many of his articles have been collaborations with students who have been associated with the Center for Research in Crime and Justice.

Since 2000, Jacobs has been a fellow of the American Society of Criminology. He served for many years as chair of the advisory board of NYU Press. He continues to serve as a member of the advisory board of the NYC Criminal Justice Agency. In 2010, Attorney General Holder appointed Jacobs to the National Institute of Corrections’ advisory board; Holder renewed the appointment in 2011.

In 2012, the International Association for the Study of Organized Crime awarded Jacobs its lifetime achievement award. In 2012, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation named Jacobs a 2012–2013 fellow.

Jacobs lives in Greenwich Village with his wife, Jan Sweeney, and his dog, Casey. They have 3 young granddaughters (Rowan and Aurora Krause and Anna Jacobs). He has a keen interest in classical music, opera, ballet and modern dance. He is an avid skier.


  1. ^ Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society, James B. Jacobs, University of Chicago Press, 1977, ISBN 978-0226389776
  2. ^ Drunk Driving: An American Dilemma, James B. Jacobs, University of Chicago Press, 1992, ISBN 978-0226389790
  3. ^ Corruption and Racketeering In The New York City Construction Industry: The Final Report of the New York State Organized Task Force, Ronald Goldstock, Martin Marcus, Thomas D. Thacher II, James B. Jacobs, NYU Press, 1990, ISBN 978-0814730348
  4. ^ Jacobs, James B. (2015). The Eternal Criminal Record. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-36826-2. 

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