Distilling Data on DUI Cases

By Frank Radosevich II
May 25, 2012

A group of Bradley students are doing time with the drug court at the Peoria County Courthouse. 

Instead of arguing before a judge, however, the four psychology students are researching DUI records to help court officials better understand the problem of drunk driving.

The students are digging through years of court cases and recording the demographics of the offenders, the details of their case and the outcome of their case. The information will be analyzed later for student research projects and used by the courthouse.

“They’re applying what they’ve learned in their psychology classes to a real world situation,” said Dr. Dawn Roberts, an associate professor of psychology who is leading the research project. “The most important thing our students learn, I hope, is how to make decisions based on empirical data, rather than opinion or anecdote.”

Cody Maddock, a senior psychology major, is one of the students working on poring over the records. He is investigating how prior drug treatment will change the effectiveness of court-ordered treatment for DUI offenders. Maddock hypothesizes that prior treatment will minimize the alcohol abuse that lies behind many DUI offenders’ convictions and will reduce the likelihood that someone will reoffend.

Senior psychology major Alexis Small is looking at how the severity of a sentence influences recidivism rates for first-time offenders—supposing that stiff punishments and treatment programs will keep them for reoffending. Small said her interest in the project comes from her fascination with forensic psychology. She will likely attend medical school after graduation. 

“I got interested in psychology in high school and I’ve been really interested in the criminal side of it,” Small said.

Another key point Dr. Roberts hopes the students will understand is how complex a research project can be. They must propose research questions, decide what data to collect and determine how that data should be recorded and analyzed.

“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 as you’re coding that shows you something you didn’t consider,” she said, adding data collection should end in either October or November.

Students and faculty, however, are not the only ones interested in the findings. Court officials said they, too, hope to mine the data for patterns. “What they are starting, we are going to continue,” said Dan Hunt, director of court services and probation for Peoria County. “All of that information they collect, the courts find beneficial.”

He said court officials would analyze the data to determine the effectiveness of certain types of punishments or to see how offenders’ backgrounds affect recidivism rates. Officials have granted students access to records and cleared other obstacles faced by the project.

As for the students, they said the opportunity to carry out undergraduate research is one they will learn from and cherish.

“Being a psychology major with a minor in criminal justice studies, I jumped at the opportunity to work directly with the Peoria Courthouse,” said Maddock, a native of Washington, Ill. “Working with the court on research is an experience that’s not available to many undergrads. I am very grateful for the opportunity.”