American Crime and Punishment: Exploring Incarceration and Its Human Consequences

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Fall 2016
Credits per quarter

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Today, the United States incarcerates more people -- both in raw numbers and per capita -- than any other nation on the planet.  How have we arrived at this place in the world and where do we go from here?

This program will examine the history, the present, and the future of criminal imprisonment in the U.S. We will study the formal institutions driving incarceration policies over the course of American history and we will look at who are the people behind the bars, their families, their communities, and what are public attitudes towards them.

Students will learn about the U.S. legal system, from the trial courts in our own communities to the appellate court decisions that establish the framework for the criminal law. We will study the evolution of the U.S. criminal justice system and its roots in the political and economic forces affecting our nation throughout its history. We will consider particular historical touchstones that still echo in our prisons and courts today, including the Jim Crow laws of the post-Reconstruction South, the origins of the War on Drugs, the Red Scares of the early and mid-20th century, and post-9/11 law enforcement. We will also explore creative alternatives to crime and punishment and the economic and political obstacles to reforming the criminal law.

Our work will include learning how to read and understand relevant Supreme Court precedent and how to do basic legal research to better understand these cases. We will also study and critique existing statutory laws that affect the rights of defendants.

We will complement this theoretical understanding with the voices of prisoners themselves, reading literature, essays and poetry written about and by the men and women who have been imprisoned, or even executed, by the state. Students will read prison writers and poets such as Eugene Debs, Eldridge Cleaver, Etheridge Knight, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Troy Davis, and Mumia Abu-Jamal, as well as writers like James Baldwin, who wrote eloquently on behalf of the incarcerated. We will explore the importance of storytelling in legal advocacy for the accused and convicted and in related social change movements.

During the quarter, students will build skills in critical reading, writing, and collaboration, as well as independent self-directed research. We hope to spend time in the community observing the actual practice of the criminal justice system by visiting trial courts and the Washington State Supreme Court. Program content will also include film and video, in-class speakers, and meeting with community groups working towards criminal justice reform.

This program will be repeated in winter quarter. Students who take this program in fall should not register for the winter quarter repeat.

This offering will prepare you for careers and advanced study in: American history, law, literature, public administration, and political science.

Online learning:
  • Enhanced Online Learning - This offering requires access to web-based tools, but use of these tools does not displace any face-to-face instruction.

Scheduled for: Day

Located in: Olympia

Advertised schedule:

First Class Meeting: Tuesday, September 27 at 9am (Sem II B1105)

2016-03-28New fall opportunity added.