SMNR: Criminal Justice Policy: Corrections and Sentencing

Course Information

Registration Information

Meeting Times

Day Time Location
WED 2:00 - 5:00 pm SRH 3.214

Evaluation Method

Type Date Time Location


Course Overview 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 it is only recently that debate about criminal justice policy has started to take account of the financial and social costs of our state's incarceration policies.  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, how can policy-makers safely and effectively downsize our massive prison system? How can legislators protect the public from serious offenders while facing immense budget pressures? 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? What role does race play in the criminal justice system, and how should public officials take into account the impact of criminal justice 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 have a heavy focus 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.

As students learn about the key criminal justice policy issues facing the country, the state, and local governments, they will translate this information for a wider audience by conceptualizing and planning a “mini-conference” on criminal justice issues for the UT community. This half-day event plus community service activity will feature local experts and stakeholders to be identified by the class.

Goals Students in this interdisciplinary seminar (cross-listed with the LBJ School) 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. Additionally, planning the conference will help students learn how to frame policy issues in ways that increase public education and awareness, while also providing them with the opportunity to network with state and local experts in the field.

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 may have guest speakers such as a national expert/advocate, a prison agency official, and a former prisoner, all of whom have been deeply involved in policy-making in this area.  Finally, we also will take advantage of any relevant interim legislative hearings scheduled during the semester to observe the policy development process.

Course Requirements This seminar is dependent upon an informed and lively discussion.  Students are expected to attend all classes, do all the reading, and come to class with thoughtful comments or questions about their reading assignments.  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-page issue brief about their topic.  Additionally, students will write a policy memo about a criminal justice issue faced by the Texas Legislature, and will submit an ungraded journal entry about their responses to the prison visit. Finally, students will work on teams to plan a half-day conference on criminal justice issues for the UT community



Textbooks ( * denotes required )

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, *
Michelle Alexander
The New Press , edition: 2010 (paperback)
Criminal Justice at the Crossroads: Transforming Crime and Punishment *
William R. Kelly
Columbia University Press , edition: 2015 (paperback)
23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement *
Keramet Reiter
Yale University Press , edition: 2016


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Important Class Changes

Date Updated
10/20/2017 Exam information updated
Meeting changed