Student Courses

Prisons and the Criminal Law

  • Semester 2

    Jan 15 - May 1, 2020 For Members Register

Course Overview

Criminal courts in the United States have engaged in an extraordinary social experiment over the last 40 years: they have more than quintupled America’s use of prisons and jails. Has this experiment with “mass incarceration” produced more bad effects than good? Is it possible at this point to reverse the experiment without doing even more harm?

In this 14-week course, students become familiar with the legal rules and institutions that determine who goes to prison and for how long. Along the way, students gain a concrete, practical understanding of legal communication and reasoning while grappling with mass incarceration as a legal, ethical, and practical issue. In an effort to understand our current scheme of criminal punishments and to imagine potential changes in the system, we immerse ourselves in the different forms of rhetoric and persuasion that brought us to this place: we read and analyze the jury arguments, courtroom motions, news op-eds, and other forms of public persuasion that lawyers and judges create in real-world criminal cases. Topics include the history and social functions of prisons; the definition of conduct that society will punish as a crime; the work of prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges in criminal courts to resolve criminal charges through trials and plea bargains; the sentencing rules that determine what happens to people after a conviction; the alternatives to prison when selecting criminal punishments; and the advocacy strategies of groups hoping to change mass incarceration. The reading focuses on criminal justice in the United States, but the course materials also compare the levels of imprisonment used in justice systems around the world. Assignments will ask students to practice with legal reasoning and communication styles, focused on specialized audiences such as juries, trial judges, appellate judges, sentencing commissions, and legislatures. The work will involve legal research, written legal argumentation, peer collaboration, and oral advocacy.

NCAA-approved course

Course Outline

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