Opinions and Legal Insights

Why U.S. Colleges Are Failing at Justice Education

In recent years, the discriminatory nature of the criminal justice system has made mainstream headlines. But the coverage has largely ignored the role of higher education.

That’s a problem. The Criminology/Criminal Justice (CCJ) degree is one of the most awarded degrees in the country. About 63,000 bachelor degrees, 35,000 associate degrees and 7,500 master degrees in criminal justice are awarded annually, making CCJ programs at colleges training hubs for future CCJ practitioners.

Given the popularity of these programs, they are increasingly responsible for how many students view criminal justice in the United States.

But studies by Pattern and Way (2011) and Frederick (2012) show that only around 20 percent of four-year CCJ programs require coursework on race and gender.

Some CCJ programs do not even offer these courses as an elective.

Additionally, Black faculty, who are more likely to integrate issues of race into their work compared to their white peers, only make up around six percent of all faculty at criminal justice programs.

The lack of courses and faculty perspectives on the discriminatory foundations of the criminal justice system means universities are failing to educate a significant percentage of its students about racism.

With such a knowledge gap, colleges may be perpetuating racist criminal justice ideals and practices.

How to Make a Difference

College educators can in fact make a difference now.

There are three particular sets of actions that can help CCJ educators play an active role in reforming, or re-imagining, the current criminal justice system.

Number one is to challenge students’ understanding of CCJ with perspectives that are often missing in mainstream media. Some CCJ educators believe their students have a limited and at times, punitive, understanding of CCJ. This understanding often derives from their communities, families, previous schooling, and popular media.

“A lot of the students think they’re going to go out into the field, they’re going to work in police, courts, corrections and they’re going to deal with bad people who’ve done bad things and they all deserve to be locked up,” one professor told me.

“I don’t think that they realize that there are other things going on that lead people to the criminal justice system that may not fit into that box.”

In response to students’ limited and punitive approach to CCJ, educators can use the narratives of Black and other marginalized people to highlight the CCJ policies and practices that contribute to disparities across the criminal justice system.

When done well, narratives string together personal experiences in a cohesive manner, which can help the storyteller and the listeners make sense of their individual beliefs as well as the ideas embedded in the narratives.

This is an effective teaching strategy because as stated by Clark and Rossitier (2008), “[Narratives] engage our spirit, our imagination, our heart, and this engagement is complex and holistic.”

Furthermore, narratives can shift the focus from the memorization of facts to an analysis of practitioners, victims, defendants, and broader socio-political contexts.

Another set of actions revolves around instructional practices.

Criminal justice instructors should integrate instructional practices that enable academic success among Black and Latinx students.

I use the term “instructional equity” to describe the teaching concept.

Instructional equity is particularly important for CCJ education, given that about 40 percent of criminal justice degree recipients are either Latinx or Black college students.

With their academic success, CCJ educators can ensure that the people most negatively impacted by systemic discrimination are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and academic credentials to make substantial changes in their communities.

This is a notion expressed by Elias Oleaga, a student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who said the George Floyd killing caused him to consider community relations as a career path.

Others in CCJ education, such as John Jay College President Karol Mason, have also expressed concerns about the current state of criminal justice and the need to successfully educate a more diverse student body.

Moving Toward ‘Instructional Equity’

One way to integrate instructional equity is by implementing small, frequent, in-class quizzes and assignments throughout the semester. This low-stakes instructional strategy can enable students to learn the course content in increments that fit well with their other responsibilities.

Given that Black and Latinx college students are likely to have other responsibilities such as work and/or children, CCJ instructors should not only be responsive to students’ cultural and socio-political contexts, but also to students’ daily personal and professional lives.

Lastly, CCJ educators must advocate for supportive evaluation practices.

In the text, Teaching at the Intersections, renowned criminologist Dr. Helen Taylor Greene describes several challenges that can make it difficult to teach about discrimination. These challenges can often relate to the lack of consensus around terms, inadequate faculty preparation, and student resistance to non-hegemonic views about CCJ.

Given these challenges, instructors who perceive their department’s evaluative practices as supportive are willing to try new teaching strategies that push their students academically and critically.

An assistant CCJ professor who participated in my study, and asked to remain anonymous, said their “department gives you a little bit more freedom” and “they’re very aware that you’re going to try new things and those new things are going to flop. And that’s going to be reflected in your evaluations. Or you’re going to have difficult classes.”

As such, a department’s supportive approach to teaching evaluations can be especially crucial for those instructors who integrate and challenge the system’s discriminatory foundation. With such support, critically-minded faculty can take risks in the classroom without fear of being reprimanded for the negative outcomes of critical teaching such as low student evaluations.

Joshua Abreu

Joshua Abreu. Photo by Mike Dean www.mikedeanphotos.com

In sum, the criminal justice system is currently being interrogated for its unyielding power to derail people’s lives with little effect on public safety.

This power disproportionately plays out in Black, Latino, and poor communities. However, with the popularity of CCJ education programs, particularly in these same communities, the CCJ faculty are in a special position to help us re-imagine a more just criminal justice system.

This re-imagination is going to require CCJ educators to develop the pedagogical skills and self-advocacy necessary to cultivate academic success among the students dedicated to creating a criminal justice system that does not dehumanize and brutalize its own citizens.

Additional Reading:

Abreu, Joshua, “Enacting and Refining Critical Teaching: A Multi-Case Study on Criminology/Criminal Justice Professors” (2020). Doctoral Dissertations. 2474. https://opencommons.uconn.edu/dissertations/2474

Clark, M. C., & Rossiter, M. (2008). Narrative learning in adulthood. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2008(119), 61-70.

Data USA (2017). Degrees: Criminal justice and corrections.

Frederick, B. J. (2012). The marginalization of critical perspectives in public justice core curricula. Journal of the Western Society of Criminology, 13(2), 21-33.

Greene, H. T., Gabbidon, S. L., & Wilson, S. K. (2018). Included? The status of African American scholars in the discipline of criminology and criminal justice since 2004. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 29(1), 96-115.

Heffernan, W. C. (2017). Addressing issues of justice (and injustice) in criminal justice education. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 28(1), 112-128.

Pattern, R., & Way, L. B. (2011). White men only?: A nationwide examination of diversity courses in the criminal justice discipline. Race, Gender & Class, 18(1), 345-359.

Sloan III, J. J. (2019). The State of Criminal Justice Educational Programs in the United States: Bachelors’ Degrees, Curriculum Standards, and the Ongoing Quest for Quality. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 30(2), 193-222.

Taylor Greene, H. (2015). Still at the periphery: Teaching race, ethnicity, crime and justice. In Hayes, R. M., Luther, S. & Caringella, S. (Eds.). Teaching Criminology at the Intersection, New York: Routledge.

Joshua Abreu, Ph.D, earned his doctoral degree in Learning and Educational Leadership from the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. He has been involved in multiple research studies to understand the influence of professional development opportunities on professors’ teaching development. He welcomes comments from readers.