What makes someone commit a crime? It's a question that has always fascinated Central Michigan University student Heidi Putney. Now the fifth-year psychology graduate student is putting her curiosity to work for the National Institute of Justice in Washington, D.C., as a research assistant.
Putney is one of only a few graduate students selected from a clinical psychology program and the first from CMU.
Rooting for the underdog
As a high school student, Putney knew she wanted to pursue psychology and developed an interest in people who don't follow societal norms — particularly those who commit crimes.
"I'm interested in why people do the things they do, and I have always rooted for the underdogs. In forensic psychology, I found a group of individuals who had started life at a disadvantage, both biologically and socially," she said.
As part of her graduate studies at CMU, Putney works directly with patients at the St. Louis Correctional Facility in St. Louis, Michigan, and at the Center for Forensic Psychiatry, Michigan's only maximum-security forensic hospital. Her patients are often individuals who have been deemed incompetent to stand trial or who exhibit serious mental health issues including schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorder.
She's also contributing to research that may improve the ways prisons and jails serve inmates. With her psychology program mentor, George Ronan, Putney helped research the effect of group therapy programs on violence reduction efforts. She also contributed to faculty member Kyle Scherr's research on the challenges people who have been wrongly convicted may face when they re-enter society.
A competitive edge
The hands-on clinical work and research experience were key to her acceptance into the competitive NIJ program.
Amy Leffler, a social science analyst at the National Institute of Justice who oversees the research assistantship program, said Putney's experience and curiosity made her an ideal candidate for the position.
"When we interviewed Heidi, we were impressed by her drive to learn and her experience working in the criminal justice system. We wanted to bring on students who can apply their knowledge and expertise in many areas," Leffler said.
Putney hopes to play a role in improving the way government leaders address issues such as violence, gang-involvement and opioid addiction in prisons.
"Jails and prisons are places with a lot of adversity and structural problems. NIJ is doing exciting work on trying to prevent violent crime — the atmosphere is highly charged with innovation and new ideas," she said.
"These experiences allow me to think about my research in a larger, policy-focused way and also will inform how I conduct assessment and provide treatment in the future."