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Course Description and Goals
Great Britain’s incarceration rate is quite high by world standards: 142 of every 100,000 Britons are currently in jail. That number in China is 118, in France 91, in Japan 58 and in Nigeria 31. The United States, by contrast, currently imprisons 744 of every 100,000 citizens. In other words, one out of every 135 Americans is currently serving time in jail or prison. Nearly half of the resulting prison population – more than two million people -- is African American, while African Americans make up only 12% of the U.S. population. According to a United Nations study, in the world outside the United States there are currently 12 minors serving life sentences in prison. U.S. prisons contain more than two thousand.
In this seminar we will examine the reality of crime and punishment in the United States. We will begin by stuyding cases and case law to build a sense of the principles behind and the practice of criminal law. Then we will move to the deeper level: we will examine the reasoning for and against the death penalty as it is practiced in the United States, and we will see how legal theory has worked itself out in court decisions on death penalty cases, and what legal practices have resulted. We will build to a larger examination of the American criminal justice system as it has evolved over the last thirty years. We will think openly and read broadly: readings will include court cases and essays by legal theorists, criminologists and sociologists; we will read Truman Capote's landmark examination of a death penalty case in In Cold Blood, and we will watch a range of documentary films. But throughout we will be motivated by two basic questions: how did the U.S. find itself with the highest incarceration rate (and one of the only active capital punishment programs) in the industrualized world? And, ultimately, how are we to judge the costs and benefits of American crime and punishment?
As in any writing seminar, we will write about all of it: expect at least three major papers, culminating in a research paper, and weekly shorter writing assignments. Discussions of the text will alternate with work on writing: conferences, writing workshops and discussions of style and structure.