Rethinking Criminal Law

Jocelyn Simonson and Amna Akbar —

Energized and challenged by the rise of powerful grassroots movements in the wake of the Ferguson and Baltimore rebellions, law professors are rethinking how to teach first-year Criminal Law. At the Law and Society Association annual meeting this summer, Alice Ristroph convened a group to ask “Are we teaching what we should be teaching? . . . Might the path to criminal justice reform begin in, or at least run through, the classroom?” During a Criminal Law Casebooks session at the 2017 AALS Mid-year Meeting/CrimFest, Prof. Cynthia Lee–coauthor to our fellow LPE contributor Angela Harris–highlighted the need to bring more critical perspectives into Criminal Law. These are but two recent examples of many conversations formal and informal. What should we be teaching future lawyers about the history, causes, and solutions to mass incarceration and the on-the-ground experiences of people interacting with the criminal process?

Our engagement with these questions led us to co-write the Guerrilla Guide to Teaching Criminal Law in August 2016. The guide was itself part of our larger project, described in an earlier post, of reimagining law school discourse in the “movement moment.” The Guerrilla Guide to Criminal Law discusses a range of tactics to disrupt the standard fare criminal law discourse, from introducing theories of abolition (or alternatives to criminal law, policing, and incarceration for dealing with deep-seated social problems), to the inclusion of voices and experiences from directly impacted people and the movements that represent them, to changing the very topics that the course covers, for example by eliminating some traditional subjects in favor of units on drug crimes, police violence, or criminal law reform debates.

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