Students test real issues of psychology and law

STARKVILLE, Miss.--Students enrolled in Kristine Jacquin's classes at Mississippi State University learn the theories behind criminal profiling, jury selection, eyewitness accuracy, and other issues of forensic psychology. In sometimes-sobering field trips, they also learn about the realities of treatment facilities housing offenders with psychological problems.

A recently completed fall-semester course titled "psychology and the law" might be called a "forensic files" for psychology. "Forensics is really clinical psychology applied to the law," Jacquin explained, adding that she asks students to understand both the theory and practice. "They learn the role of psychologists in the legal system, the use of psychological concepts in court, and the psychology of criminal behavior, among other areas," she said.

To understand the insanity defense, for instance, students this fall conducted a mock trial based on the case of the Houston, Texas, mother who was tried for the 2001 drowning deaths of her five children. In 2002, a jury sentenced Andrea Yates to life in prison despite her defense that she suffered from mental illness.

"Some students were on the jury, some on the defense team, and some on the prosecution team," explained Martha Wright, a junior psychology major from Starkville who aspires to be a forensic psychologist.

"Through class assignments such as this, Dr. Jacquin absolutely keeps abreast of issues that set precedents and current issues that impact our fields of psychology and specifically the law," Wright said, adding that the Scott Peterson trial for the murder of his wife Laci also was discussed in class.

"One of my goals is to get students to think about how the legal system deals with jury bias, the influence of the media on prospective jurors, and other psychological issues," Jacquin explained. "We don't draw conclusions," she noted, emphasizing that she sees her role as "raising relevant issues, not suggesting the answers when there may be none."

In addition to extensive reading, analysis and writing, Jacquin's fall-semester class also provided students a chance to visit two treatment facilities for youths and adults whose serious trouble with the law often goes hand-in-hand with serious psychological disorders.

"The class discusses psychological approaches to repeat offending, and at the correctional facilities they learn how treatment programs work," Jacquin said.

Over the semester, students visited a Memphis, Tenn.-based residential treatment program for youths whose serious offenses include violent crimes and drug use. On a separate field trip, they were introduced to the privately operated East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Meridian, a 1,000-bed psychiatric prison.

In both cases, Wright said, she and her classmates saw the real world of forensic assessment and treatment.

"In the case of the Youth Villages in Memphis, we saw treatment programs designed to reintroduce the offender to society as a healthy, functioning person. At EMCF, we got a direct insight into what happens to the mentally ill who are sentenced to prison," she explained.

Being behind the scenes at a prison housing the mentally ill and at a facility for disturbed youth made a lasting impression, she said. "We got a glimpse into different avenues of forensic psychology, and in a way that a textbook could not convey as accurately."

That reaction, said Jacquin, is precisely her goal.

"One of the main benefits is that students begin to see whether they can actually do this kind of work."

Mon, 12/13/2004 - 06:00