Students help courts analyze DUI data

Psychology student Anna Murr ’13 talks with Dan Hunt, director of Peoria County probation and court services, and Associate Circuit Court Judge Kim Kelley. Murr was one of six Bradley students who researched DUI records to help court officials better understand the problem of drunk driving.

March 1, 2013

Is court-ordered treatment effective for DUI offenders? Does the severity of a sentence have an impact on first-time offenders?

These are among the issues six psychology students have been researching as they examine DUI records at the Peoria County Courthouse. The goals of the research are twofold: to help court officials gain a better understanding of DUI offenders and to provide  students an opportunity to apply research skills they’ve learned in class to a real-world situation.

Associate Circuit Court Judge Kim Kelley ’75 MA ’77, who presides over Peoria County DUI court cases, and Dan Hunt, Peoria County director of probation and court services, sought the help of associate psychology professor Dr. Dawn Roberts to initiate the research project. The courts implemented a more treatment-oriented sentencing process for DUI offenders during the past several years, and Judge Kelley wanted to assure that these sentences are effective.

 Senior Cody Maddock, a psychology major and criminal justice minor, says his research involves determining if offenders had prior treatment, what treatment they received with their sentences and how successful the treatment has been. Treatments can include counseling, attending Alcoholics Anonymous and other therapy depending on the severity of the offense and whether the offender has an addiction to drugs, alcohol or both.

 “This is a great opportunity to observe behind the scenes in probation offices and to conduct research that will give me experience for grad school,” says Maddock, who plans to attend graduate school and is considering a career in the probation field.

Dr. Roberts says, “The project is an exemplar of how persons with different pieces of information and skills can work together to solve an important issue. The court has years of data on DUI sentencing but neither the time nor expertise to analyze it. Students are reading through complicated records and extracting relevant information.”

Dr. Roberts guided the students through data collection, management and analysis.

The students proposed research questions, decided what data to collect and determined how the data would be recorded and analyzed. They then examined years of court records, tracking the demographics of offenders, the details of their cases and the outcome of each case.

“The most important thing our students learn, I hope, is how to make decisions based on empirical data, rather than opinion or anecdote,” Dr. Roberts says. “That’s the scientific method which permeates every single psychology course they take.”

She hopes the students gain an appreciation for the complexities of research projects. “They’re learning that research isn’t quite as neat and straightforward as it might seem in some textbooks. They’re learning that no matter how well you think you’ve captured all possible levels of a variable, such as DUI sentencing, you’ll find a case that shows you something you didn’t consider.”

Court officials hope the data reveals patterns that will help them determine the effectiveness of certain types of punishments and learn how offenders’ backgrounds impact recidivism rates. “Students will see how their research is translated to the real world,” Dr. Roberts says.

The Department of Psychology has increased its efforts to develop applied experiences for students. “When one says ‘psychology,’ many think the most appropriate internship might be one that involves counseling or psychotherapy. We do have those types of practica,” Dr. Roberts says. “However, the students have additional skills that could be helpful to a company or organization. Our students can process information and put it into a form that helps them answer an important question or make a decision.”

Others students involved in the research project include Christina Carreno ’12, seniors Anna Murr and Alexis Small, junior Mackenzie Porth and sophomore Melissa Vance.