Current Research Projects

Sample of Current Research Projects

Citizen Perceptions and Criminalization of Image-Based Sexual Abuse

Funded in part by the University at Albany Center for Women in Government & Civil Society

The growth in access to unobtrusive cameras, the internet, and applications that allow users to create and disseminate material has produced a new wave of sexual violence. One survey revealed that 10% of Americans had threatened to post sexual photos of former intimate partners online—about 60% executed the threats. Another study showed 10% of Australians had received threats that their sexual images would be posted online or otherwise shared, and 9% actually had such images distributed without their consent. Between 9% and 11% of Australians had sexual images taken without permission, had unwanted sexual experiences recorded, and were threatened or actually had recordings distributed. Although these behaviors have been treated as unique (e.g., “revenge porn,” “upskirting”) in the media, research literature, and policy, they are all forms of gendered and sexualized harassment and abuse. Men are more likely to be perpetrators, and women are more likely to be victims. Thus, there is growing consensus that the behaviors lie on a continuum of image-based sexual abuse, a term that reflects women’s experiences, recognizes their harmful effects, and expands response opportunities

Because image-based sexual abuse is affecting many individuals around the world, investigating how citizens and governments are responding to it is of paramount importance. The gendered nature of the problem demands that analysis be informed by a feminist framework. Many scholars have documented that law as a social institution has the effect of reflecting and supporting dominant patriarchal values and legitimizing violence against women. - The PI’s research has revealed that US policies related to image-based sexual abuse are no exception (Najdowski, 2017). Only 75% of laws acknowledge that an individual might expect to have privacy in public, and 63% of those qualify that expectations must be reasonable. Yet different legal decision makers interpret reasonableness differently—one Washington, D.C. judge deemed that women had no reasonable expectation of privacy while wearing dresses and sitting on steps. This echoes the rape myth that women who go out in public braless or wear short skirts are “asking for trouble.” Victim-blaming is also reflected in 37% of laws that offer no protection to victims in cases in which nonconsensually distributed images were created either by the victim or with the victim’s consent or had been shared with the expectation they would remain private. Scholars have been calling attention to the role this belief plays in generating a rape-supportive culture for nearly 40 years, but it is still widely endorsed in the US. Policies predicated on such beliefs undermine women’s agency—they dictate what behavior is considered appropriate, imply that women are responsible for their own victimization, and ultimately, deny or justify violence against women. Other facets of laws reflect attitudes and beliefs that trivialize victims’ experiences and negatively impact women’s sense of dignity and self-worth. The PI found that 12% and 29% of statutes include stipulations about just how explicit an image must be, whether the victim must be identifiable, and the level of harm that must be generated by the abuse (Najdowski, 2017). Such provisions narrowly define the parameters under which victims can seek justice, even though victims may feel just as violated by various types of images. Also, stipulations about victim harm are concerning because systematic research on the psychological effects of this type of abuse is lacking and different victims are likely to be affected in different ways. Image-based sexual abuse reduces women to body parts for the purpose of others’ sexual consumption. Such objectification ties women’s value to their sexual utility and denies them various aspects of their individual human qualities. These effects are discounted by statutes that rigidly categorize women’s experiences as either valid or invalid. Considering these potential negative impacts, factors that impede or promote policy change on this issue must be identified. The PI is now developing research that will scientifically investigate predictors of citizens’ reactions to image-based sexual abuse and, in turn, how those reactions translate into policy.

Examining the Deterrent Effect of Registration on Juvenile Sex Offending

Funded by Hindelang Criminal Justice Research Center Funds and the Virginia Commonwealth University Presidential Research Quest Fund

The juvenile justice system was founded on the principle of rehabilitation, but a wave of violent crime
and media portrayals of young superpredators (Dilulio, 1995) in the 1980s and 1990s caused a shift in policy focus. In reaction, state and federal policies have made it easier to treat adolescent offenders like adults (Reppucci et al., 2009), including policies that require adolescent sex offenders to submit their personal information to public registries just as adult sex offenders do. Despite controversy over whether even adults should have to register as sex offenders (e.g., Sandler et al., 2008), legislation has become increasingly inclusive: More individuals are required to register, more behaviors are registerable offenses, more information must be shared, and that information is more widely available to the public. As a result, more adolescents are subjected to registration policies that originally were intended for adults. These policies were implemented to promote public safety, but they are also rooted in deterrence theory. As Robinson and Darley (2004, p. 173) noted, “criminal law makers and adjudicators formulate and apply criminal law rules on the assumption that they nearly always influence conduct.”

This project represents a critical first phase of a larger research program examining whether sex offender registration policies serve a general deterrent function for adolescents. The PI, in collaboration with Dr. Hayley Cleary from Virginia Commonwealth University, is examining the complex relations among adolescents’ awareness of sex offender registration policies, their engagement in sexual behaviors that could result in registration, and the potential moderating influences of both criminological and developmental factors. The PI is investigating the extent to which adolescents are aware that certain sexual activities put them at risk for sex offender registration and whether such knowledge deters adolescents from engaging in future sex offending, including nonviolent sexual behaviors that are technically illegal yet developmentally normative (e.g., consensual sex between similar-aged peers, sexually explicit text messaging or “sexting”). The PI is also exploring whether sanction certainty and psychosocial maturity moderate the effects of registration policy awareness on adolescents’ sex offending. This interdisciplinary exploration of the influence of public policy and social norms on adolescent sex offending integrates principles of criminology with contemporary perspectives from developmental science.

Effects of Race and Socioeconomic Status on Medical Misdiagnosis of Child Abuse.

Funded by the American Psychological Foundation Visionary Grant and Hindelang Criminal Justice Research Center Funds

Research shows that there are sociodemographic disparities in health care (Smedley, Stith, & Nelson, 2003). Of importance to the present research, several studies have demonstrated that race and/or socioeconomic status influence the diagnosis and reporting of child abuse (see e.g., Flaherty et al., 2008; Laskey et al., 2012). It has long been recognized that child abuse is a socially constructed phenomena which is subject to being identified on the basis of stereotypes about the types of people who are typical abusers (Gelles, 1975). Indeed, stereotypes have often been proposed as an explanation for racial and socioeconomic health disparities (see Balsa & McGuire, 2003). There are a few studies that have tested this proposition in other clinical domains (Abreu, 1999; Green, et al., 2007; Moskowitz, Stone, & Childs, 2012). The proposed study aims to build on this new literature by examining the role of stereotypes and confirmation bias in racial and socioeconomic disparities in the diagnosis of child abuse. Confirmation bias involves the tendency to search for evidence that supports an existing hypothesis (for reviews, see Gilovich, 1993; Nickerson, 1998; Nisbett & Ross, 1980). Part of this process involves assuming the hypothesis is true and asking questions that are designed to bolster the hypothesis. Like all people, physicians and nurses are subject to confirmatory bias in decision making (Bornstein & Emler, 2001, Croskerry, 2003). Thus, the specific aim of the proposed research is to examine the strength and content of stereotypes associating race and social class with child abuse as well as whether stereotype-driven information processing strategies drive emergency room personnel to be more likely to misclassify Black or low SES children as victims of abuse than White or high SES children, especially when police are already involved in the case. This research has implications for understanding wrongful convictions, which has previously not been addressed in the literature on bias in diagnosing and reporting child abuse. The proposed work will build on a growing literature documenting how confirmatory bias in hypothesis testing and tunnel vision can lead to wrongful convictions.

Just as race might influence stereotype endorsement, so, too, might gender. Boys are often characterized as aggressive, and this aggressiveness is believed to be an internal factor that contributes to their violent behavior (Nagin & Tremblay, 1999). Unlike boys, however, girls who exhibit aggressive behavior are often seen as acting out of their feminine nature, and violence among girls is greatly underestimated (Ness, 2004). Therefore, I predict that boy offenders are more likely to be stereotyped as superpredators than are girl offenders. The proposed research is designed to test these two hypotheses.
The results will be informative for researchers who are interested in testing social psychological theories related to legal decision making, but it is also important for applied, practical reasons. Professionals within the legal system need to understand how jurors react to juveniles accused of crimes and how they reach their verdicts in cases involving juveniles. Such increased understanding has the potential to lead to changes that can help ensure fairness for some of the most vulnerable defendants in our legal system.

Racial Differences in Perceptions of Control and Freedom in Police Encounters

Funded by the University at Albany Faculty Research Award Program

Many laws and rules in our criminal justice system depend on the understanding of a theoretical "reasonable person." However,reasonableness is subjective and depends on personal and cultural history. This project explores whether racial differences in perceptions of police encounters stems from differences in models of agency for African Americans as compared to Whites. Given the unique abuses African Americans have experienced at the hands of the state, we hypothesize that African Americans feel more under the control of the state and are less able to assert their freedom in police encounters relative to Whites. We test this hypothesis by comparing African American and White citizens' reactions to hypothetical police encounters. Results could shed light on racial differences in the tendency to yield civil liberties in police encounters (e.g., consenting to be detained or searched), which both increase the likelihood of criminal justice system involvement and restricts citizens' legal defense options.

Exploring Effects of Defendant Age and Race on Jurors’ Perceptions of Coerced Confessions. 

Funded by the Psi Chi Mamie Phipps Clark Research Grant

One of four people who were wrongfully convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence falsely confessed to a crime they did not commit (Innocence Project, n.d.). Drizin and Leo (2004) found that 33% of 125 proven false confessions were made by juveniles. In fact, for myriad reasons, juveniles are disproportionately more likely than adults to falsely confess to a crime. Are jurors aware of juveniles’ heightened risk of falsely confessing? Are they capable of discounting juveniles’ coerced confessions in their decision making? This is a concern because juveniles are tried by jurors in juvenile court in some states (e.g., Kansas; In re L. M., 2008) and in adult criminal court when their cases are waived due to the juvenile’s age or the type of crime alleged (see Reppucci, Michel, & Kostelnik, 2009), and an alarming 81% of all false confessors in Drizin and Leo’s (2004) sample were convicted by a jury. The proposed mock trial study, a replication and extension of Najdowski and Bottoms (2012), aims to determine whether jurors are more aware of the risks associated with coercion when considering juveniles’ rather than adults’ confessions. Specifically, in this research, we will vary both the type of confession evidence offered and the age of the defendant. It is expected that mock jurors will discount a coerced confession for juvenile but not adult defendants.

Even so, jurors might not discount coerced confessions for all juveniles, as conflicting findings from past research suggest that jurors’ reactions to confessions might depend upon the race of the juvenile. This is concerning given that 78% of the 32 juvenile exonerations that occurred between 1989 and 2003 involved Black youth, whereas only 9% involved White youth (Gross, Jacoby, Matheson, & Montgomery, 2005). The one study that has explored differences in jurors’ perceptions of confession evidence as a function of defendant race revealed that jurors perceived the same defendant’s confession to be more voluntary and more inculpatory when the defendant was described as Arab American versus White (Pickel, Warner, Miller, & Barnes, 2013). This finding was attributed to the fact that minority defendants are perceived as distinctive, salient, and more responsible for their confessions relative to majority defendants. This effect is expected to generalize to minority defendants from other racial backgrounds, including Black defendants. That is, jurors might perceive confessions as more voluntary when they are offered by Black rather than White defendants. Thus, jurors are expected to discount a juvenile’s coerced confession only when that juvenile is White, not Black. This hypothesis will be tested by systematically varying the defendant’s race in the mock trial study described next.

This study is theoretically important because it will illuminate whether age and racial bias influence jurors’ reactions to defendants’ confessions. Past work suggests that such biases exist (e.g., Kassin & Sukel, 1997; Pickel et al., 2013), but a direct empirical investigation of these issues is needed. This study is also practically important because it will lay the foundation for future studies to test whether procedural safeguards (e.g., jury instructions, expert testimony) can ameliorate such biases. Such safeguards may be required to assist jurors in evaluating confession evidence and ensure that all defendants receive fair trials.