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A New Generation of Crime Fighters

University of Maryland excels at teaching criminology research.

The University of Maryland offers a program in one of the fastest-growing fields of study and employment: criminology and criminal justice. Since its creation in 1969 as a distinct entity, the university’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice has become a leader in criminal justice education and in research on topics like crime and delinquency, law enforcement, juvenile justice, criminology, courts and corrections and terrorism.

The Maryland program was one of the first out of 28 criminology and criminal justice doctoral programs in the United States. Outstanding faculty is the biggest reason for the program’s success, says Sally Simpson, professor and former chairwoman of the department.

Faculty members’ research “is high-quality, it’s cutting edge, it’s salient, and that translates into a terrific doctoral program,” says Simpson. “They publish with their graduate students, they train the graduate students, who then go out and continue the tradition.”

The department currently has 58 masters and doctoral candidates, 7 percent of whom are international students.

“Doctoral programs mainly are interested in training students in research,” Simpson says. “That’s really what our faculty do and are very good at doing. We bring in a lot of grant money and students get the opportunity to work on projects that are in areas of great interest.”

One example is the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), says Simpson. Directed by Gary LaFree, a professor of criminology and criminal justice, it is one of 12 U.S. Department of Homeland Security centers of excellence throughout the United States. According to the START Web site, the yearlong graduate certificate program provides ­participants advanced education on the causes, dynamics and impacts of international and domestic terrorism. The program is tasked with developing a better understanding of the terrorist radicalization process and the evolution of terrorist groups, and with strengthening the resilience of U.S. citizens in the face of terrorist threats.

“That’s a good example of how our faculty provides opportunities for students to do research in cutting-edge areas,” Simpson says.

She also cites a program in life-course ­criminology, which seeks to understand delinquency and crime over the entire span of ­people’s lives—another “critical area of research” in which the department excels, Simpson says.

Weiwei Liu, a doctoral candidate from China during the 2008-9 academic year, says her most valuable learning experiences were working as a research assistant at the department and at University of Maryland’s Center for Substance Abuse Research. The center examines the problems drug and alcohol abuse ­create for individuals, families and ­communities.

“For me, learning how to conduct research is like an apprenticeship,” she says. The experience prepared her to work as an independent researcher.

Liu says the size of UMD’s program gives students flexibility. “No matter what you are interested in, it is almost guaranteed that you can find a faculty member who is also interested in it.”

The program is “very interdisciplinary, which I think is attractive to students,” Simpson says. In addition to faculty with backgrounds in criminology and criminal justice, the department has psychologists, economists and sociologists.

Liu also cites the location of the University of Maryland at College Park in the Washington area as providing students with “unique resources” and “great opportunities to gain research experiences.”

“As our programs become more visible and people internationally are interested in the kind of training that we can offer—especially in quantitative analysis…a lot of people come here to get the training that they need to go back and do some evidence-based kinds of research in their own countries focused around their criminal justice systems, how they operate, how the programs work or don’t work,” Simpson says. “The global interest of people in issues of justice is another reason these programs are becoming more and more popular.”

Jeffrey Thomas is a staff writer with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs.