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Counseling Psychology News

Attorney, a UW grad student, using counseling psych training to help clients

April 19, 2014
by Jamal Matthews

After graduating from law school in 1992, Larry Peterson embarked on his professional career as a public defender. After completing law school student internships in Chicago and northeast Illinois, he has spent more than two decades with the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office.

In an effort to transform his practice and to better help his clients and society-at-large, Peterson is furthering his education by pursuing a master’s degree with UW-Madison’s Department of Counseling Psychology.

At each step along his career path, Peterson has witnessed widespread disparities of arrests and convictions between race and class.

Larry Peterson“I was proud to have been hired by the Wisconsin Public Defender, because I perceived our system as more up to date and better resourced than the system in Chicago,” says Peterson, who is an attorney with the agency’s Trial Division. “In terms of resources, expertise, respect and expectations, they were all better in Wisconsin than they were at that time in Illinois. However, many of the same issues existed in both states. There are huge racial and socioeconomic disparities in terms of who was charged (and convicted) and who wasn’t.”

In the beginning of his career, Peterson represented individuals charged with all the different types of crimes that fill the system: drugs, violence, theft and traffic. But in 2011, he was assigned to take on a specialized category of case, Sexually Violent Person (SVP) Commitment litigation.

SVP cases, sometimes called “Sex Predator” litigation, are cases where a person has completed his sentence for a serious sex crime, and is now being considered for long term commitment and treatment at a state-run psychological hospital. The cases turn on complex recidivism statistical risk assessments, and psychological disorder diagnosis.

As Peterson’s client’s futures became more and more influenced by psychological evaluations and recommendations, he realized his education –- and worldview -– needed updating. It was then Peterson began his search for the right graduate program.

Upon learning about the Department of Counseling Psychology department within the School of Education, Peterson connected deeply with the research of the department and its sound ethics, its emphasis on multicultural competence, evidence-based methodology, and humane implementation. These very qualities brought Peterson to UW-Madison, where after two years on campus, he feels it is a good fit.

“I had no idea how competitive this department was,” says Peterson. “Students in the program are unbelievably smart and courageous. By that, I mean the program demands a great deal of personal growth. Not just memorizing theories or practicing new skills, the department gives you tools to help yourself grow so that you can assist and guide others. The faculty is always available and welcoming, but also firm, which is intentional and necessary.”

Through these interactions, Peterson reports that he has noticed an immediate change in his practice. He credits his first year to giving a more sophisticated understanding of psychology and is better able to collaborate with both experts and clients as a result.

For example, many aspects of group treatment theory were applicable to courtroom advocacy, from the jury and client to the prosecutor and judge.

“When people are more comfortable, they make better decisions,” Peterson explains. “Increase the amount of trust between those in the room and interactions are less combative, less suspicious and more constructive.”

Aside from his practice and studies, Peterson spends much of his time with his wife and three children, is a part of numerous committees and groups within the criminal justice system, and is a past member of the Stoughton (Wis.) City Council.
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