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Improving juvenile corrections focus of criminology graduate

Melanie Taylor
May 30, 2013

The route Melanie Taylor took to earning a doctorate from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University included a couple stops that would help define her career. She worked as a juvenile correctional officer at the Orange County Probation Department prior to enrolling at ASU, a stark contrast from a previous job at a private school for well-to-do kids in Las Vegas.

“It was kind of odd that those were the kids that I did not prefer to work with,” said Taylor.  “But the juvenile delinquents, I felt like they had real stories. And I felt the issues they would complain about, there were real reasons why they had those issues.”

It helped that Taylor had a firm grasp of criminal justice concepts after earning a Master’s degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. But Taylor felt she had more to learn, so she asked her professors from UNLV about PhD programs to attend. She applied to ASU and the University California at Irvine.

“I had been hearing from a lot of my professors about Arizona State and the good things they were doing,” said Taylor, who had applied to graduate school at ASU three years earlier. “That was really something that was pulling me in.”

It was while writing her statement of purpose for the ASU doctoral program that Taylor realized she really wanted to focus on juvenile corrections and juvenile delinquency.

“I felt that I needed to learn more about them and understand their backgrounds,” Taylor said. “I knew they weren’t bad kids. I mean, some of them were the nicest people I’d ever met. And so, for me, I never looked at them as being bad people. It was just something had happened in their lives that made them go down a different path.”

Taylor said she was immediately attracted to ASU’s doctoral program because of the school’s faculty. Plus, she liked that ASU’s doctoral program was small, but growing. The school welcomed its first cohort of PhD students the year before. Taylor also felt she would be able to work well with the other students she met.

“Melanie Taylor entered the PhD program as a bright, motivated student with a lot of interests,” said Scott Decker, foundation professor and director of the ASU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “During her time in the school, we helped her to broaden her knowledge and focus her interests. “

Taylor was immediately exposed to a large scale research project her first semester. Decker invited the first-year doctorate student to assist with a national study on federal immigration enforcement by local law enforcement agencies.

“My strategy with PhD students is to find out what they can't do, and challenge them with new and more complex tasks,” said Decker. “Melanie rose to every occasion, and her current work reflects a sophistication of problem formulation and problem solving that should enable her to have a long and productive career in research and teaching.”

“That was something that I really appreciated - that he would allow me to work on a big project that he had already worked so hard on by himself,” said Taylor. “It was a nice way to really get involved in the field instead of starting off grading papers.”

Taylor did grade papers, but for classes she taught, including Intro to Criminal Justice; Gender, Crime & Criminal Justice; and Discretionary Justice. She said her experience in the classroom and in the field made her more confident about her career choice.    

“I didn’t even realize how much I’ve gained since I’ve been here until I started teaching and students would ask me questions,” Taylor said. “And it made me realize ‘I actually do know these answers now.’”

Taylor also appreciated what she learned through the one-on-one relationships she developed with professors like Danielle Wallace, Justin Ready or Charles Katz, who is director of the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety.

“Melanie was nothing but easy to work with,” said Katz. “She was hard working, intelligent and self-motivated. She worked well with those in the field and had a natural tendency of putting people at ease when she was around.”

Katz also served on Taylor’s dissertation committee with Decker and assistant professor Kate Fox. Titled “A Case Study of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act: Reforming the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections,” Taylor’s dissertation examined attempts by the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections to reform its policies and procedures to ensure better outcomes for the kids it has served.

“I was looking at how the agency reformed suicide prevention, medical care, mental health, education and juvenile justice in general,” said Taylor. “And so I examined how the agency was able to sustain change to those areas in the long term.”

Taylor found the agency’s own survival depended upon reform. Like many juvenile corrections agencies in the United States, the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections (ADJC) had its share of problems. One of the most troubling was a rash of suicides in 2002 and 2003 that resulted in the Department of Justice finding “serious deficiencies” with ADJC facilities, policies and practices.

As a result, some Arizona counties expressed reluctance to send their juvenile offenders to ADJC. Then, during the economic downturn several years later, the Arizona Governor’s office proposed eliminating the agency altogether to save money.

“They had to make the changes in order to keep their legitimacy or they would lose their resources,” Taylor said. “They had this reliance on counties who would send them kids and a governor who would give them funding.”

ADCJ instituted measures to improve safety and security at its facilities, but Taylor found reforming the agency’s culture was paramount. That culture change began to happen after a new director with a law enforcement background incorporated police tactics and accountability. Taylor said staff members realized they needed to change or face the consequences if they didn’t.

“So it really set this tone for the staff that ‘hey, if we don’t reform then we’re going to end up like them,’” said Taylor. “‘We’ll either end up going to jail or prison or be fired because we’re not following these policies.’”

Taylor will formally present her findings to ADJC administrators this summer.

“Her dissertation was not only timely but will have a profound impact on discussions revolving around juvenile corrections in Arizona,” said Katz. “There has been very little thoughtful discussion on an institution that has had long and protracted problems.”

Taylor will continue her research at the University of Nevada, Reno where she will be an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice. She plans to focus on the conditions of confinement and treatment of juveniles, crowding in juvenile institutions and institutional safety, among other topics.

Taylor also can’t wait to teach. She became a favorite of many ASU undergraduates because of her teaching style and ability to engage students. Taylor credits her experience at ASU for making her a confident instructor.

“I’ll start a lecture and a student will say something and I’ll go off on a tangent,” said Taylor. “And I’ll think to myself ‘how do I even know all of this stuff?’ I didn’t even realize how much I’ve gained since I’ve been here until I started teaching.”

As Taylor looks back at her time with the ASU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, she appreciates the friendships she developed with faculty and other graduate students.  She also has a word of advice for the next cohort.  

“Don’t expect to sleep very much, but it will have a good payoff in the end,” said Taylor. “I feel like I was really lucky to get into this field. And I feel very blessed about how much I’ve gotten out of the program.”