University of Denver researchers and students influencing the Colorado court system

Within the Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP) at the University of Denver, students and faculty work together to advance the field of forensic psychology. Through research, mental health assessments, and expert testimony in court, they help create outcomes that benefit individuals and communities.

“Forensic psychology is at the intersection of mental health and the law,” said Neil Gowensmith, associate professor in the GSPP’s master’s program in forensic psychology.

The meeting point of psychology and law is often reminiscent of a number of pop culture and news references: the psychological reviewers of “CSI”; the Behavioral Science Unit at Netflix’s “Minhunter”; and, of course, high-profile defense cases at insanity. Think Jeffrey Dahmer, the Serial killer who murdered and dismembered 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991.

“It’s part of forensic psychology, and things like that happen,” says Gowensmith. “We are consulting with the police and law enforcement agencies to find out why crimes are being treated the way they are. And we definitely get on the stand and are asked to give our opinion on a person’s sanity or competence — things like that happen, but never like on TV.”

Instead, Denver’s FIRST (Forensic Institute for Research, Service and Training) work focuses on providing expertise to the court system to find the right treatment and legal process for people with mental health issues.

Neil Gowensmith

“Our field, our courts and our governments know that current approaches to mental health don’t work well — often these forensic systems are inefficient,” Gowensmith says. “You are unjust. People waiting for service in prisons can do some pretty horrible things. If they have symptoms of mental illness, they may harm themselves or attack others. And what they really need is treatment.”

Denver FIRST was formed in 2014 to assist GSPP in responding to requests from across Colorado and surrounding states to study forensic mental health. At any given time, at least four faculty members and more than 15 master’s students work with community organizations and clients on forensic psychology projects.

One of these community organizations is Maintain Aurora, a new program inviting a trio of students to the Aurora City Jail four days a week. Students evaluate inmates for behavioral and mental health issues before seeing a judge. The result is that some inmates are then able to access appropriate treatment that would otherwise be difficult for them to obtain alone and outside the system, rather than facing jail time, which often only exacerbates the problem.

Forward-looking research is also part of the institute’s work. Each year, the program hosts a postdoctoral fellow who researches beyond the ongoing studies of faculty, staff, and students. This year’s grantee is Cassandra Bailey, who received her PhD from Sam Houston State University and is working with Denver FIRST and students to advance the field.

In addition to the research she conducts for her immigration court fellowship, she also works with students, helping them publish research on areas they find most interesting. “I do forensic research and then I also do forensic assessments, mainly the ability to stand trial. That’s one of the things that makes Denver FIRST so special,” she says. “In addition to the clinical work, you also get the chance to be a junior scientist — [to] research, work and collaborate with students. Nowhere else does that really exist.”

In February, the university received the R1 classification of the Carnegie classification of universities, joining the ranks of other universities with the highest research activities. DU is now the only private R1 university in the Rocky Mountain region. Both Gowensmith and Bailey see this as a major step for the program and the university.

“With R1, we can increase the scope and scope of our research,” says Gowensmith. “While it does increase our likelihood of success in getting grants, I think it also attracts private funders and donors who see that the university’s visibility has increased a bit with R1. And it increases our voice at the table as we collaborate and develop partnerships with other colleagues. It just puts us in a different seat at this table.”

Bailey sees the move to R1 status as a major boost for students and their research. “Research runs more smoothly, of course, when you have money, but there are many research opportunities, especially when you work at an institution that supports research. It allows for things like full access to Qualtrics and all the different magazines. It’s much easier to do research when you’re at an institution like that.”

Ultimately, however, it is about helping the judiciary and eliminating inequalities when an accused appears in court. Gowensmith says: “Our work is really based on science and social justice. We’re trying to answer the court’s questions. We can help the court understand the individual’s criminal liability and public safety concerns, but then also balance this with the individual’s mental health needs.”

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