2014 Talent Award winner leverages research to protect the vulnerable
Information about the legal rights of young people in Canada’s judicial system—both victims and witnesses—is often complicated and, all too often, poorly communicated. For Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Kirk Luther, winner of SSHRC’s 2014 Talent Award, this represents a real threat to the human rights of a highly vulnerable population.
An emerging leader in the academic research community, Luther is committed to the application of this research to the benefit of Canadians. He has issued a call for reform and made improving youth access to legal information the focus of his doctoral research, working with youth protection agencies, police forces and an international network of researchers to achieve this goal.
An exceptional graduate student with an outstanding academic record and demonstrated capacity for innovative research, Luther has already been proving himself as a researcher, as well as an expert research communicator. He has previously taken top honours in Memorial University’s Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition and SSHRC’s own 2013 Storytellers challenge. He also placed first in the Eastern Regional 3MT and was named People’s Choice at the national competition.
[G]reater care really needs to be taken to ensure [young people] understand their rights under the Charter.
From the lab to the station—social psychology meets police practice
Combining social and forensic psychology with empirical research findings and community engagement, Luther studies human behaviour within the criminal justice system. He focuses on improving policing practices, in order to protect the human rights of vulnerable youth in Canada.
“One of the big things I’ve been looking into is the delivery of legal rights, especially for youth, because they don’t have the same understanding as adults. So, greater care really needs to be taken to ensure they understand their rights under the Charter,” says the Memorial student. “Our goal is to improve their comprehension, so they can protect themselves during police interviews, or wherever they are in the criminal justice system.”
Dedicated to applying innovative research to social psychology, Luther’s master’s work on current practices in police interviewing of young victims and witnesses has already led to extensive collaboration and changes in technique with police forces across the country. His doctoral work aims to help youth better understand their legal rights, by helping develop a highly accessible, legally sound version of the “youth waiver form”—the document outlining for young people what their legal rights are. Luther’s earlier graduate research was the first to test whether or not these forms duly protect youth.
“We look at what [police] are doing, and we look to what the science tells us is best practice and … we try to incorporate those into police training courses run here on campus,” says Luther.
The end result of this research, he says, will be to improve the justice system’s treatment of young people by helping police officers fully apply proper interviewing techniques, particularly when working with children.
We’re trying to improve policing practice all across the country along with the delivery of legal rights.
Sharing research knowledge across the country
A member of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary’s research committee and a volunteer for the Association for the Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, Luther has previously developed unique partnership programs to ensure provincial police officers use practices guided by hard research. He also works regularly with police forces across the country to share the knowledge he has gathered through his work.
“We teach police officers … how best to interview victims, witnesses and suspects,” says Luther. “We teach them principles—guided by science—that will minimize miscarriages of justice such as false confessions. We’re trying to improve policing practice all across the country along with the delivery of legal rights.”
Luther’s drive to conduct meaningful, applied research, to understand the way the world works, and to contribute to society by educating the public about important scientific issues stands out for an individual at such an early stage in their career. His program of research into human rights, and his ability and desire to communicate his research findings to diverse audiences, is a testament to a bright future.