Few policy issues have had as big an impact on the Texas political or social landscape as criminal justice, and fewer still have such a hold on the popular imagination. Yet informed debate that takes into account the financial and social costs of our state's incarceration policies is rare. Time and again, public officials at all levels and in all branches of government find themselves confronting the thorny problems presented by the policy choices the state has made in the criminal justice arena.
This course will force us to go beyond the simplistic debates between "tough on crime" and "soft on crime" rhetoric, and confront the hard policy questions that mirror the daily challenges faced by policy-makers and public officials. For example, should policy makers authorize building new prisons when the crime rate is decreasing but the number of prisoners is increasing? How can legislators protect the public from serious offenders while facing immense budget shortfalls? Should the state or counties bear the financial burden presented by tough local sentencing practices? Should any limits be placed on judicial or prosecutorial discretion? To what degree should public officials take into account the impact of the state's sentencing practices on minority communities and families? When is it appropriate for a court to intervene to improve prison or jail conditions? What forms of external oversight should exist when it comes to prison operations?
Although the course will be focused on Texas' criminal justice policies and practices, we will often refer to the experiences of other states and other countries to examine a range of practices in this field and to explore alternative options for developing policy.
Students in this interdisciplinary seminar will gain a firm understanding of the key criminal justice policy challenges facing public officials. Students will begin to appreciate the complexity of these issues; understand how both good and bad policies are developed; understand the financial and social costs of criminal justice policy decisions; recognize the extent to which criminal justice issues have an impact on almost every aspect of government; and explore the relationship between law, constitutional requirements, the administration of justice, and public policy. Students will also learn practical policy research and writing skills.
Course Materials, Prison Visit, Outside Speakers, and Legislative Hearings
Each topic will be examined critically through a wide range of readings, including empirical studies, essays, books, statutes, legal cases, and official reports. The reading load can be very heavy at times, but it is all interesting material. We will also try to arrange a visit to a prison and a jail to help ground our discussion. (This "view from the inside" is a highlight of the course.) We will have some guest speakers, including a national expert/advocate, a prison agency official, a probation chief, and a former prisoner, all of whom have been deeply involved in policy-making in this area. Finally, we also will take advantage of the Texas legislative session to attend relevant hearings and to follow key pieces of legislation.
This seminar is dependent upon an informed and lively discussion. Students are expected to attend all classes, do all the reading, come to class with thoughtful comments or questions about their reading assignments, and participate in virtual discussions on Blackboard. Class participation is critical and will be considered in grading. Students will be required to take on an original research project on a topic of their choice and to write a 10 – 12 page issue brief about their topic. Additionally, there will be two shorter practical projects: students will be required to write two policy memos about a criminal justice issue faced by the Texas Legislature. Lastly, students will be required to submit an ungraded journal entry about their responses to the prison visit.