Law & Academia

Criminal justice doctoral programs put cutting-edge research into practice

June 10, 2013

Jane Palmer’s research for her doctorate in criminal justice focused on how to protect women and children from violence.

In criminal justice doctoral programs, the students become one of two separate yet equally important types of professionals: the academics, who want to teach; and the pure researchers, who want to work for the government or think tanks. These are their stories. (Chung chung.)

Jane Palmer was one of these doctoral students until last month, when she graduated with a Ph.D. from American University’s School of Justice, Law and Society, which is one of three schools in the D.C. area — along with George Mason University  and the University of Maryland, College Park — that offer graduate degrees in criminal justice or criminology.

Students in these programs study topics such as the philosophy of justice, government, public policy, sociology and advanced statistics. Through a combination of coursework, assistantships and dissertation work, they research the real problems of law and order, aiming to reduce crime and violence while working directly with law enforcement officials, offenders, victims and policymakers.

Palmer’s passion for helping victims was born while she was advocating for women at the Domestic Violence Court in Chicago as part of her master’s degree in social work. “I became concerned that women who sought assistance from the court were at times in more danger for seeking assistance.”

At AU, Palmer drew from her real-world experience to conduct research on violence against women and children. Some of her work focused on the difficulty of prosecuting those who harm Alaskan and American Indian woman.

Tribes have historically been unable to prosecute non-Native offenders on their land, but the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 gave them limited powers to do so when women are attacked or abused.

“Everybody saw this as a huge success — passing this legislation — but then you’re sort of like, OK, celebration’s over, this law got passed, how do you implement this?” Palmer says. While in school Palmer worked on a congressionally mandated study to figure that out. “I hope to be able to assist someday to help communities implement laws after they get passed.”

There is a real need for this kind of research in the law enforcement community. Over the past 20 years, the Justice Department has increasingly relied on research to enforce laws fairly.

“It’s like a moving tide toward reliance on research,” says Laurie Robinson, who served as an assistant attorney general for the Justice Department during the Clinton and Obama administrations and is now a professor at the George Mason University School of Criminology, Law and Society.

One of the most well-known examples of how research can change the justice system, Robinson says, is the use of DNA to exonerate people who had previously been found guilty of crimes.

The research these students are doing is driven by how it will be used in the real world.

“There’s a real focus in the classes and in the research on how this all relates to policy, how we can use really good science to help impact criminal justice policy,” says Cody Telep, 29, who recently earned his Ph.D. from George Mason.

Telep himself contributed to that cause during his time at George Mason as a research associate in its Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, which tries to help law enforcement officials use new research on the job.

“Now that we have a growing body of research on what works in policing, how do we get police officers and agencies to actually use that research to affect day-to-day practices?” Telep says.

One answer: The Center created something called the Evidenced-Based Policing Matrix, which allows law enforcement leaders to “learn a little bit about [the research] without having to sit down and read a hundred-plus studies,” he says.

It’s just one way this type of research helps keep people safe. “A service we’re doing is to help out the communities that we serve,” Telep says.

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