Feature Article

Widening the net (in a good way)

Widening the net in the criminal justice system.

By Jennifer Woolard

Although the phrase “widening the net” has negative connotations in the justice system, suggesting that policy and practice changes may inadvertently bring more people into the legal system than perhaps necessary, I would like to claim that phrase as a laudable goal for AP-LS.  We can widen our net to expand the topics and methodologies of our research, the membership of our organization, and the ways in which we engage the larger world on issues of social justice. 

Our 2016 conference in Atlanta illustrated the benefits of net-widening, bringing together 946 attendees for several days of presentations, networking and meetings. Special thanks to our conference co-chairs Vanessa Edkins and Curt Carlson for organizing the more than 500 talks, posters and addresses. And of course, none of it could happen without all the behind-the-scenes work by Kathy and Clyde Gaskey — thanks to you both. The meeting provided so many opportunities to learn about cutting-edge research and practice in psychology and law.

Our plenary speakers offered unique perspectives on several topics that don't usually receive a lot of attention at our annual meeting. Amy Bach, JD, described how her organization, Measures for Justice, is empowering communities to reform their criminal justice systems by assembling county-level data about court processes and case outcomes. Her former mentor, Stephen Bright, JD, of the Southern Center for Human Rights, challenged social scientists to continue generating research that can inform the struggle to promote human rights in criminal justice, particularly regarding issues of racial discrimination and indigent defense. Sarah Cook, PhD, provided a comprehensive overview of research, policy and practice on violence against women, particularly regarding sexual assault on college campuses. Our plenary speakers brought expertise in the creation, application and implementation of empirical research to bear on compelling social justice issues. 

We also recognized several of our own AP-LS members' substantial contributions to research and teaching. Kirk Heilbrun, PhD, and Christopher Slobogin, JD, shared the AP-LS Distinguished Contributions Award. In keeping with a shared award (which is highly unusual), Kirk and Chris described their collaborative efforts in developing the Criminal Justice Mental Health Standards and the implications for policy and practice. Chris Slobogin was also recognized by AAFP for his Distinguished Contributions to Forensic Psychology. His award address offered a number of ideas for empirical research related to preventive justice. Tess Neal, PhD, received the Saleem Shah Award for Early Career Excellence in Psychology and reviewed research on bias in expert decision making in the legal system. Finally, past-presidents Ron Roesch and Patty Zapf edited this year's AP-LS Book Award volume titled “Criminal and Civil Law: A Handbook for Lawyers.” Each of these awardees' accomplishments reinforced the critical intersection of research, law and practice that serves as the foundation for AP-LS. 

Our teachers, mentors and students received recognition as well. Matthew Huss of Creighton was honored for his outstanding teaching and mentoring, and Amanda Zelechoski of Valparaiso received the early career award from our Teaching, Training, and Careers Committee. Skye Stephens, Laura White and Alana Krix won dissertation awards and showcased their work at the Saturday poster session. We also recognized undergraduate paper award winners Hannah Phalen, Siara Johnson and Tyler Plogher. The top twenty student submissions garnered AP-LS travel awards to support their participation in this year's meeting. 

It is inspiring and invigorating to see how many ways AP-LS members are not only talking the talk but also walking the walk of interdisciplinary research and practice. My own presidential address considered our individual and collective efforts toward our AP-LS mission statement: To enhance well-being, justice and human rights through the science and practice of psychology in legal contexts. We already engage with so many issues, populations and audiences that it can be difficult to track and honor all of our efforts. However, we still have a long way to go. In my address I offered three challenges: to expand our research methodologies to incorporate qualitative and mixed methods approaches and publish those in our journals; to understand legal and justice systems as systems , not just as opportunities for individuals to make decisions and affect outcomes; and to listen to and engage more folks on the front lines of social justice in both our research and our membership as an organization. I hope to work with many of you in the coming months to identify strategies and opportunities to meet these challenges. Let's widen our net and strengthen our capacities to engage science and, by doing so, engage justice.