Students explore criminal justice through new minor

Many of today’s Cornell students are acutely aware of the problems with the U.S. criminal justice system. Ask a class of students how many African-American men are incarcerated and they can give you the stats: one in six. How many people are in prison or jail in the U.S.? About 2.2 million, more than any other country in the world.

“Students are studying and reading about criminal justice policy on their own because they realize this is a major issue they’ll need to address in their lifetime,” said Jamila Michener, assistant professor of government and one of the key faculty members behind the new interdisciplinary Crime, Prisons, Education and Justice minor offered by the College of Arts and Sciences.

Students in the minor will take two core government courses focused on prisons and policy, then choose from three related classes in various departments throughout the college. Students must also participate in an engaged learning experience connected with the criminal justice system, such as volunteering as teaching assistants with the Cornell Prison Education Program.

The minor comes at a critical point in U.S. history, Michener said, when there is bipartisan understanding that change is needed.

“Although there’s agreement that something needs to change, what changes are made will depend on so many factors: political conditions, as well as recommendations from policy entrepreneurs and policy analysts who are studying what’s best,” Michener said. “There’s room here for people who want to make a difference.”

Students taking classes in the minor can make a difference, said Joe Margulies, professor of government and law and faculty director of the minor.

“Whether we’re going to be able to do something transformative or merely tinker with the edges remains in doubt,” Margulies said. “But it’s important to educate and prepare a cohort of students who can participate intelligently, passionately and thoughtfully in this issue.”

The list of qualifying courses illustrates the complexity of the issues facing the criminal justice system. It includes classes in government, anthropology, law, English, history, performing and media arts, and sociology, among other areas. Bringing together all of those perspectives is important, the faculty members said.

“If you think that the solution is ‘let’s just prosecute a few bad cops,’ then you have not grappled with the complexity of the problem,” Margulies said. “If you think there is no crime problem, or there never really was a crack problem, well, you’re mistaken.”

Last spring Michener taught a class, The Politics of the Inner City, after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, so issues of criminal justice were often on the agenda for class discussions.

“Students had such a variety of perspectives, and when they got together and talked through their disagreements on these issues, it changed them,” she said. “If some of those students had an opportunity to work in the prison and to have more coursework, they could have been even more informed.”

Teaching assistantships with the Cornell Prison Education Program are a key part of the minor, which received a 2015 curriculum grant from Engaged Cornell.

“At some level, college is and ought to be an exercise in myth-busting,” Margulies said. “Nothing challenges your preconceptions more than spending time in a community that you know only from what you see in a Hollywood creation. It’s a great gift to be able to recognize the humanity that’s shared by all but yet denied to some.”

The Cornell Prison Education Program, which has been offering classes at Auburn and Cayuga correctional facilities since the mid-1990s, helps inmates earn credits that can be applied to an associate’s degree from Cayuga Community College.

“The minor makes Cornell the only university in the country where you can participate in creating a college classroom in a prison and also study the critical issues facing our criminal justice system,” said Rob Scott, director of the program.

Scott said the list of Cornell students who want to participate in the program is always long, because it is often a life-changing experience.

For Ross MacDonald ’03, M.D. ’08, the Prison Education Program brought him back to medicine, a career path he was thinking of abandoning as an undergraduate.

“The kind of personal connections I made with the students in the prison was analogous for me to the doctor/patient relationship,” said MacDonald, who received his medical degree from Weill Cornell Medicine. “It absolutely changed the course of my life. I realized I wanted that to be at the center of what I did every day.”

Today MacDonald is chief of medicine for the Division of Correctional Health Services in New York City, overseeing medical care for the city jail system. MacDonald said his office plays an active role advocating for better health care for people who are incarcerated.

“There have been huge changes in the jail system since I arrived five years ago,” he said. “And we have been advocates and partners in that progress, but the issue is so complex that it will take a generation of effort, and that effort has to be multidisciplinary.”

Michener said the new minor will certainly expand student opportunities to reflect on and research those complex issues but could perhaps do more.

“These class discussions can shape their decisions about what they’re going to do with their lives, whether they go to the [Department of Justice] or they go to work for Goldman Sachs,” she said.

For more information on the minor, see Crime, Prisons, Education and Justice minor

This story also appears in the Cornell Chronicle.

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		Barbed wire outside of prison