Five Professors Spend Summer on Research Projects

Research

Two forensic science faculty received enhancement grants for summer studies on marijuana and DNA.

Five faculty members from the College of Criminal Justice spent their summer conducting research to explore up-and-coming issues in the field.

Among those funded through Enhancement Grants from Sam Houston State University and the College of Criminal Justice were Drs. Melinda Tasca, Jasmine Drake, Brittany Hayes, Erin Orrick and Sheree Hughes-Stamm. The researchers are studying topics as diverse as solitary confinement in a state prison system, chemical profiling of marijuana, online interventions for cyberstalking, factors that impact offender reentry initiatives, and the use of “next generation” DNA profiling systems for degraded biological samples.

“The goal of enhancement grants is to obtain preliminary results that strengthen your proposal for federal funding,” said Dr. Tasca.

Solitary Confinement

Logos for STAFSDr. Melinda Tasca will study the racial and ethnic disparities among offenders placed in solitary confinement using data on all released inmates from one state in 2011-13. Studies have found that solitary confinement has harmful effects on inmates and remains a hot rod for litigation. Between 5 and 10 percent of all inmates in state and federal prisons serve time in solitary confinement.

Inmates in solitary confinement are not always assigned to these segregation units because of disruptive behavior. Solitary confinement is also used to manage those with mental health issues, gang members and to segregate other vulnerable groups. Dr. Tasca will investigate the racial makeup of those assigned to segregation units and, in the future, she plans to evaluate the impact of solitary confinement on recidivism and mental health status.

Profiling Marijuana

Logos for STAFSDr. Drake will investigate the efficacy of using chemical profiling of marijuana in identifying its geographical origin. Although two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized the use of marijuana for recreational purposes and others permit its medical use under state law, the drug is still illegal federally in most states. The goal of the chemical profiling project is to help law enforcement officials and forensic practitioners identify the origin of samples to determine if laws were broken by smuggling samples from legal jurisdictions to illegal outside markets.

Dr. Drake will analyze marijuana samples from a minimum of 20 cases from the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, Southwest Regional Center, to determine whether chemical profiles for these materials can be developed using traditional chemical methods, such as Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS). Many of these samples would include suspected contraband coming across the Mexico border and through the airports from South America, Canada, Europe and Asia.

“Due to the legalization of marijuana in the states of Colorado and Washington and the absence of an extensive tracking database or registry for legal marijuana products, the need for an analytical tool for identification of marijuana samples is relevant to prevent diversion and illegal distribution,” Dr. Drake said. “This method will not only assist law enforcement agencies to authenticate legal cannabis products but also will help to link cases and eventually link and identify illegal growers/distributers.”

Online Intervention of Cyberstalking

Logos for STAFSDr. Hayes will examine whether social networking sites provide the ability for individuals to intervene in instances of cyberstalking. With the growth of the internet and social media, many cases of stalking are moving online and are posted on public forums for all to see. Dr. Hayes will explore whether individuals are willing to report these behaviors to authorities when they are observed.

The study is an extension of research into bystander intervention in the cases of sexual assault or intimate partner violence. In addition to measuring interventions, the study will examine whether attitudes held by individuals affect their willingness to get involved in stopping the behavior. The goal of the proposed study is to determine at what point individuals are willing to intervene when exposed to stalking behaviors in an online environment. Findings from the study can be used to tailor bystander intervention programs and broaden their focus to prevent other criminal behavior.

Factors That Affect Recidivism

Logos for STAFSDr. Orrick will examine a new approach for examining time-to-reoffending-after-release by looking at variations in recidivism pattern among cohorts of serious and violent offenders. She will analyze how recidivism operates both within and between groups and how offender profiles differ across offending categories, such as violent crime, property crime and drug crime.

The study is based on nearly 2,400 participants in the Serious Violent Offender Reentry Initiative, a National Institute of Justice effort to develop programs before and after an offender’s release to improve outcomes. Dr. Orrick seeks to pinpoint the factors that lead to recidivism in hopes of focusing funding and efforts to address those offenders’ needs.

“The purpose of the study to look at whom to target, when, and for what,” said Dr. Orrick. “It will help to identify the needs of specific groups of offenders.”

Next Generation Forensic DNA Tools

Logos for STAFSFinally, Dr. Hughes-Stamm plans to investigate “next generation” DNA kits to test their potential to provide more information from degraded or challenging biological samples, and to increase the power to discriminate and triage samples compared to earlier versions. Dr. Hughes-Stamm will use various tissue samples from cadavers at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility to test expanded DNA quantification and profiling kits in addition to new Next Generation Sequencing panels specifically designed for human identification purposes.

Crime labs are currently transitioning into some of these new kits, but the full utility of NGS panels for human identification and forensic investigation using severely decomposed human remains has not been clearly demonstrated. Dr. Hughes-Stamm is interested in the new technology as part of her ongoing research into identification methods for highly degraded human samples from mass disasters.

In 2013, Dr. Hughes-Stamm received a National Institute of Justice grant to explore a new method for room temperature storing and processing of degraded DNA samples from mass disasters in an effort to identify victims. These new methods may provide a better way to quantify and genotype these very difficult DNA samples.

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