Case closed: CSU criminologist retires after 35 years investigating society’s dark side

After 35 years at CSU, sociology professor Prabha Unnithan is retiring. Photo by Stacy Nick/CSU

In any criminal investigation, solving the crime hangs on answering several core questions: who, what, when, how and where. But for Prabha Unnithan, 2019-2020 John N. Stern Distinguished Professor in the Department of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts, there was a much larger question to be uncovered. 

“I wanted to know the ‘why,’” Unnithan said. “The questions about people and groups and interactions; the social structural and social psychological questions, those were always of more interest to me than forensic chemistry, forensic biology, forensic physics.”  

Unnithan spent over three decades studying that question at CSU, researching the behavioral and theoretical aspects of criminal behavior and the criminal justice system. At the end of the month he’s retiring, but his legacy — not the least of which includes building CSU’s Criminology-Criminal Justice concentration within the Department of Sociology — will remain. 

“Its success has grown beyond anything I could have imagined,” Unnithan said, recalling how when he was first hired the then-certificate program was on the verge of being dropped. 

“Now almost 70% of our sociology majors are concentrating on criminology and criminal justice,” he said.

More than the ‘CSI effect’

prabha unnithanUnnithan said he can’t take all the credit for the increased interest in the program, noting that people are always going to be riveted by crime and criminal justice. 

“Some people think it’s only because of 9/11 or the ‘CSI’ effect,” he said, noting the impacts of the deadly 2001 terrorist attack and the popular television show focused on forensic science. “But people have always been fascinated by the dark side of human behavior and trying to understand why these things happen.” 

Many criminology students are early declarers, who knew they wanted to go into this line of study from the start, he said. There’s also a broad diversity of jobs available in the field. 

“Whether you want to work on the academic side or within the system,” he said. “We’ve had graduates working in the Secret Service, Border Patrol, FBI, State Patrol, the Department of Corrections.”

A legal legacy

That includes Staci Shaffer (‘94), now a lieutenant with the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, who credited Unnithan’s influence as both a professor and a colleague. 

“Dr. Unnithan’s mentorship is the key that has unlocked my potential as a law enforcement professional,” Shaffer said. ”When I began teaching at Colorado State University as an adjunct, I sat and observed his masterful teachings. He truly inspires students with his wisdom. He has supported my professional journey to help me grow into the person I am today.” 

Staci Shaffer (‘94), now a lieutenant with the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, credited Unnithan’s influence as both a professor and a colleague. Photo courtesy of LCSO

Throughout his career, Unnithan has authored, co-authored and edited five books and more than 80 research articles, along with a multitude of reviews, commentaries and technical reports for U.S. and international criminal justice agencies. 

His research has been recognized with many honors and awards, most recently in 2022 with the Gerhard O. W. Mueller Award for Contributions to Research, Leadership and Service from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. In 2019, he received the College of Liberal Arts John N. Stern Distinguished Professor award, CLA’S highest faculty award. 

“Dr. Unnithan is one of the leading authorities in the United States and internationally in criminology, criminal justice, and international and comparative criminal justice,” said Peter Taylor, sociology professor and department chair. “Today’s Sociology Department owes a very great deal to his service contributions over the past 35 years.” 

He is also well-known and highly respected for his outreach and engaged work with law enforcement and criminal justice agencies throughout Colorado and beyond.

Criminal justice on an international scale

Looking at criminology from an international perspective has always been a primary area of research interest for Unnithan, who grew up in Malaysia and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in India before coming to the U.S. to get his doctorate. 

Unnithan authored several books on the subject, including Crime and Justice in India and Policing and Society: A Global Approach. In 2017, he received a Global Initiative for Academic Networks (GIAN) Award from the Government of India. He was also asked to deliver a week-long series of talks on criminology and criminal justice at his master’s alma mater there. The series was recorded and later broadcast to reach students who may not typically have access to higher education opportunities. 

Sociology professor Prabha Unnithan (center) celebrates his retirement at a recent party with his wife, retired FRCC-Larimer Campus Dean of Instruction Shashi Unnithan, and CSU Associate Professor of Sociology KuoRay Mao.

“That was personally very satisfying and rewarding to me to see my work having an impact,” Unnithan said. 

In the U.S., Unnithan’s work focused largely on homicide, including co-writing the book Guns, Violence, and Criminal Behavior: The Offender’s Perspective. He was specifically interested in studying the situations that led to homicides as well as the aftermath. 

“I wanted to understand the dynamics behind these situations: where they occurred; why they occurred; what the interactions were, if any, among the perpetrator, the victim, the bystanders, the families,” he said. 

That interest led Unnithan to collaborate with the Colorado group, Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, which was pushing to in create a unit within the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to work on long unresolved, or “cold” cases. Unnithan helped create a training program for detectives and victim and witness advocates on how to work with the wider circles of victimization left after a homicide. 

“There’s more than one victim in a homicide,” he said. “There’s an expanding circle of victimization that starts with the person who died and includes, among others, the grieving relatives and friends.”

The cycle of crime and criminology

During his time in the field, Unnithan has seen many changes in approaches to policing and criminal justice. 

“I think things go in cycles,” he said. “When I started here, there was a lot of emphasis on community policing and problem-oriented policing. Then, 9/11 happened, and everything shifted around the need to gather intelligence that would allow us to ‘connect the dots.’ … Now, as a result of efforts like the Black Lives Matter movement, policing is trending away from that. It’s very event driven and always changing.” 

That’s why, even though Unnithan is retiring, he’s not totally leaving CSU — not yet anyway. 

Unnithan’s next role will be editing a new research journal from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, Justice Evaluation Journal. While he has edited three journals before, he’s excited to begin this new chapter of his career and his time at CSU. 

“When I first visited campus, I was very impressed with the department, the University and the city. Now 35 years later, I’m still impressed by the department, the University and the city. My enthusiasm for CSU has not dimmed at all.”