Some of the most compelling and important research often seeds itself in the mind of a researcher long before it is a full project. One such example is Caitlin Davey and her PhD study – to understand the origin of Caitlin’s research, which aims to explore the relationship between prejudice and punitive attitudes towards Aboriginal offenders, it is important to start at the beginning.

Caitlin has always had a keen interest in working in the correctional system, so after she finished her initial undergraduate, a Bachelor of Psychological Science, she went out and did exactly that.

“Before being accepted to my PhD I spent 2.5 years working in the correctional system in Victoria and Queensland,” said Caitlin when telling the story of her study journey and how it led to a PhD. “During my time working in the field, I case managed high-risk offenders, many of whom were Indigenous. Through conversations with them, I began to realise that many of them had this shared experience of prejudice and racism which impacted their progression through the justice system and often saw them returning to custody.”

While this was happening in Caitlin’s professional life, a true scholar at heart, she was also completing her Bachelor of Criminology with UNE. “As part of my studies, I was involved with a pilot unit (CRIM312 – Professional Practice in Criminology), which involved working closely with the Centre for Criminology and the New South Wales Police Force. I was discussing my experience working in the criminal justice system with Dr Mulrooney, co-director of the Centre, who saw significant merit and value in my research idea, and encouraged me to apply to the PhD program.”

Caitlin’s PhD project aims to explore the over-representation of Indigenous Australians in the Criminal Justice System of Australia. Research has indicated that there are several reasons for this however, very little attention has been paid to the role of prejudice and, in particular, how preconceived perceptions about Aboriginal people may shape community attitudes towards their punishment as offenders. This is the gap in scholarship that Caitlin aims to address with her PhD.

“My research aims to explore the relationship between prejudice and punitive attitudes while drawing on psychological and criminological theories. By approaching my research this way, I will be able to explore Australians: a) views on crime causation; b) support for particular measures to deal with offenders; and c) perceptions on offender capacity to rehabilitate and reintegrate. Furthermore, the research will also consider whether such attitudes and perceptions are compounded in rural environments.”

While Caitlin’s research is still at an early stage there are already benefits that she has identified, beyond filling the gap in scholarship. The implications of this research, depending on the findings, has the potential to facilitate increasingly punitive political and policy responses to crime, as well as impact upon the reintegration of offenders. One of the projects most significant goals is to provide data that can increase the ability to close the gap between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous incarceration rates in Australia, and in doing so addressing significant social injustices.

So what does the process of research actually look like for a PhD student? For Caitlin her project will involve several different studies:

“My first study will draw on a representative survey of the Australian public and examine attitudes towards punishment and, more specifically, attitudes towards Indigenous Australians and offenders.”

“My second study will examine these types of attitudes specifically in the context of the rural, considering they may be impacted and shaped by aspects of location and culture.”

“My third study will draw on semi-structured interviews with Indigenous Australians living in these rural and remote areas who have served a period of incarceration. The study will explore how self-reported experiences of prejudice shaped the criminal justice system interactions, and whether this was shaped by location.”

Not only is this project meaningful for the social justice and criminology scholarship in Australia, it is also quite close to Caitlin’s heart:

“Being an Aboriginal woman with a career in corrective services, I have seen the ‘revolving door’ of the justice system and its impact on offenders, their families, and their communities. I have seen men beaten down and feel that they cannot change their ways because they are ‘set up to fail’ by a society and system that views them as nothing more than offenders.”

“Academically, my project means a lot to me also because I will be part of an important social justice discussion and my research findings will be able to contribute something new to the discussion around Indigenous over-incarceration in our prisons.”

Research endeavours such as Caitlin’s are no easy task, when a project is important to a researcher it is often essential for them to have a strong support network – luckily help is always given to those who need it at UNE. While this project is driven from Caitlin’s compassion and expertise, she has also had some fantastic helping hands on this journey.

“The HDR team in HASS has been amazing in answering any questions I have. Additionally, all three of my supervisors are staff at UNE and have been so supportive in helping me polish my proposal, develop the skills I will need to complete my research and give me opportunities to develop professionally.”

“My primary supervisor is Dr Kyle Mulrooney (Criminology) and my secondary supervisors are Dr Susan Watt (Psychology) and Mr Guido Posthausen (Oorala Aboriginal Centre). Having these three experts as a part of my supervisory team helps to ensure that each element of my research is considered, measured, and analysed properly to make certain my Ph.D. is completed to a high standard.”

Beyond her fantastic supervisory support structure, Caitlin finds the assistance provided at a university level is both helpful and humanising:

“Additionally, I really liked the hands-on experience and interaction that UNE gave me; I was never just a student number like at some other universities I’ve studied at. I wanted that more personalised university experience which I got here at UNE. So, for me, it only made sense to stay at a university where I knew I would be supported and encouraged to excel in my field.”

A PhD is a long journey and Caitlin still has much to go, but with the determination and passion that she shows there is no doubt that she will make waves. This is perfectly exemplified by her empathic outlook on her studies: “I’ll be bringing something new, original and, hopefully, impactful to the table in relation to one of this country’s biggest social justice issues.”