The psychological study of the criminal justice system focuses on three areas; law enforcement, corrections, and the courts system. Each of these three areas encompasses different factions of our legal system, different functions with offender contact, and different reasons for that offender contact. Our research focuses on not only offenders, but victims, law enforcement staff, the juror, any expert witnesses, judges, prison guards, and parole officers in our legal system. Our research findings have impact on all of these areas in the legal system.
Don Thomson is an Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the Deakin Burwood campus. His research focus is in forensic psychology, specifically the interface of psychology and the law. Don is well-placed to observe this interplay considering his background in both areas. Right from when he first completed his PhD, Don was making an impact in the field of psychology. His research on the encoding specificity principle and impact and influence of memory retrieval helped show the importance of context. The findings of this research on memory retrieval led to the development of the technique “cognitive reinstatement” which is now commonplace police interviewing procedure.
After further studies at Yale as a research psychologist, Don returned to Australia to take up a position at Monash University. Based on his memory research he was invited by Justice Michael Kirby, then Chair of the Australian Law Reform Commission, to be a member of a working group creating the Uniform Evidence Act. In order to better inform his interactions with the legal system, Don completed a law degree, his articles, and the bar readers’ course. He was admitted as a barrister to the Victorian Supreme Court in 1987. In 1992 he established the first post-graduate program in forensic psychology in Australia at Monash. His current research focus spans three different areas: existing identification procedures, jury issues, and testimony competency.
Current criminal case identification procedures use 8-10 people in a line-up presented simultaneously. There is a movement to change this identification procedure to a sequential method, where members of the lineup are presented one at a time. If the witness makes a positive identification the procedure stops. Don’s research suggests that simultaneous lineups in fact remain more effective than sequential, both in terms of correct identification as well as avoiding false identification of another member of the lineup.
Don’s research with legal cases involves both implied and theoretical jury issues. Some of these are quite topical, including in cases where television media has potentially generated prejudice due to reporting. His research has also looked at the variety of influence on juries, including what media form the article appears in, the intensity of the publicity and whether the reporting is emotive.
One of the fastest-growing areas in civil litigation is challenges to testamentary capacity, and Don is involved in several studies in this field to find the most effective way of assessing testamentary competency. He has also researched the issue of competency to stand trial, especially as it pertains to children.
As well as a wide range of education and experience, Don was the first psychologist to serve as chair of the Victorian Psychological Council and was the first President of the Psychologists Registration Board of Victoria. He is the current chair of the APS Ethical Guidelines Committee.
School of Psychology
Dr Bianca Klettke is a psycho-legal researcher with a focus on investigating factors impacting on sexual violence. Her research utilises cognitive variables, including cutting-edge technologies, such as eye-tracking, to investigate perceptions of victims, evidence, legal decision-making, expert-testimony and sexting. Her aim is to inform legal bodies and policy makers about how to minimise sexual violence and how to improve victims' experiences in the legal system.
Dr Stefanie Sharman is a Senior Lecturer at the Deakin Burwood campus. With a career-long interest in memory, Stefanie initially completed her thesis on false memories, specifically imagination inflation, but has since then moved onto studies of how to enhance memory and the more forensic-focused applications of memory retrieval.
Since starting at Deakin in 2009, Stefanie has been working with Martine Powell in the Centre for Investigative Interviewing. The Centre works closely with different police forces and other organisations in trying to develop innovative interviewing techniques to help aid memory retrieval. One such project is looking at children’s memories of repeated events. Through specific techniques and encouraging differentiation, children who have suffered repeated abuse will be able to provide information in greater detail, which in turn leads to a more comprehensive prosecution.
In further work with children and memory, Stefanie is involved in studies intended to improve children’s recall of their eating habits, with the aim of helping provide more thorough feedback to a dietician. Currently not only is their recall limited, but children sometimes actually give incorrect information, which makes it difficult to develop suitable dietary plans. In a team with Martine Powell and Helen Skouteris, Stefanie hopes that improvements in this area will be one of the many ways of tackling childhood obesity.
In the forensic field, Stefanie is pioneering a new way of interviewing adult witnesses, specifically those who are victims of sexual assault. Current police procedure uses a technique called Cognitive Interview which reinstates the context of the event by getting the subject to imagine being back in the situation. For many this causes unnecessary stress, and so Stefanie is involved in testing and developing a new method that uses open questions to ensure victims feel supported but are also able to give the police thorough information.
Stefanie is currently teaching second year Cognitive Psychology, where the focus on memory means she can utilise much of her first-hand research to help students gain an intimate knowledge of the subject.