Add “Criminal Injustice” to the law school curriculum

There’s broad consensus among the public, as well as experts, that America’s criminal justice system is in dire need of dramatic overhaul. Plenty of proposed solutions are already on the table, running the gamut from changes in minimum sentencing laws and prosecutorial authority to boosts in legal aid and community representation in policing. Given the role that judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys play, we should look to reforms even earlier in the professional pipeline as well: the law school curriculum.

Andrew Cohen, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, makes precisely that case in a post excerpted below:

First-year students take criminal law, and criminal procedure, and they learn about mens rea and the Model Penal Code. What’s missing from law school curricula, however, is a required course that ought to be titled: “Criminal Injustice.” The course would track the countless ways in which our nation’s justice systems fail to provide justice to countless Americans. Only such a class would adequately prepare new lawyers—whether they end up being prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, or not—for the reality of what’s happening in the nation’s courtrooms, prisons, jails, and police stations.

What might the curriculum for the proposed Criminal Injustice requirement cover? According to Cohen, it should include how policing works in practice, the culture of prisons, abuse of prosecutorial powers, flaws of jury trials, judicial elections, blatant and subtle racism found throughout criminal procedure, and more. They are, as he notes, the startling concrete ways in which the criminal justice system fails to live up to abstract principles in its day-to-day workings — knowledge that’s vital yet not considered top priority for typical law schools. He concludes:

A few years ago, J. Harvie Wilkinson, the esteemed 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, wrote that the nation’s criminal justice system is “doing remarkably well.” He was wrong. And it does law students a disservice to teach them the nuts and bolts of criminal law, and criminal procedure, without also teaching them the ways in which the “system” is systematically failing to ensure that constitutional norms and standards are being applied. I look forward to the day when this course is a staple at law schools around the country.

Let’s hope law school deans and faculty will take up the challenge. For the rest of the proposal, see “The Syllabus for a Course on Criminal Injustice,” The Brennan Center (2016).