Reforming the American criminal justice system, one case at a time

Batman is going to jail for life, without the possibility of parole. It likely wasn’t the sentence he deserved, but it was the one we as a class needed right now.

We were in Day 2 of our seventh grade criminal justice unit, and Batman had just been found guilty of first-degree murder. Our students had served as witnesses, judge and jury as Mr. Murphy and I belligerently argued our sides. This lighthearted case followed our first day kickoff, walking through the eye-opening real-world case of Reynolds Wintersmith Jr., a first-time offender who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for selling crack cocaine to support his parentless siblings.

The learning objectives of this unit were relatively straightforward – students would learn how the American criminal justice system works, how it frequently fails stakeholders from suspects to taxpayers, and how there are not a lot of easy fixes to the many issues plaguing it. To invest students in such a complicated set of issues, we broke them into teams of four and had them create their own personalized criminal justice systems. Each team spent a class period debating topics such as mandatory minimum sentences, marijuana laws, stop and frisk policies, civil forfeiture, juvenile detention and treatment of felons post-release – many of the most controversial topics associated with criminal justice reform.

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The interactive storytelling platform used to capture the students’ criminal justice systems and process each day’s real-world-inspired case.

Once they reached consensus on an issue, they locked in their choice. For example, for three strikes laws, they might choose to follow states like Washington, requiring at least one offense to be a serious and violent felony for the law to come into effect. They might increase the severity of the law to apply after just two felonies, even if neither is violent. Or they might trust judges to determine sentences in all cases, removing a mathematical formula from the process entirely. Mr. Murphy and I were careful to present both sides of each issue so as to minimize bias in their decisions, regardless of our personal stances on topics like solitary confinement and police militarization.

With custom criminal justice systems ready to roll, the rest of the unit consisted of students processing real-world-inspired cases. This was built on Twine, a digital interactive fiction platform – essentially a computer-based Choose Your Own Adventure book that I could code cases into. The cases unfolded based on all previous decisions a team had made. For instance, when running through the case of Cristian Fernandez, a 12-year-old charged with murdering his brother, some teams tried Cristian as a juvenile while others sent him to adult court. When considering the case of Davon Crawford, a repeat violent offender who ended his own life after killing his family, some teams were able to avoid tragedy based on their three-strikes decisions – though many teams had already softened their law after processing the case of Anthony Jerome Jackson, a three-time nonviolent offender sentenced to life in prison for taking a wallet from a hotel room. There were some cases we ran through together as a class to elicit large group debates – getting trapped in the poverty cycle of suspended licenses and lost jobs in a system that graciously doesn’t use jail time to punish unpaid fines and fees, or determining if and when it’s morally acceptable to seize and sell suspected criminals’ cars and houses when your police department really wants to buy a new tank.

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The logic flow for one of the cases shown in Twine.

As students worked through the each case, they were prompted to justify their decisions and suggest changes to their own systems in short-form essays. As each case concluded, they read through the true story of each case so they could understand how their criminal justice systems handled things differently. They were also given the opportunity to change the relevant portions of their systems – changes that would ripple across all future cases. It was remarkable to hear students discussing some very mature topics and to see how personally injusticed they felt as they took on the roles of suspects denied proper counsel, families with children killed by SWAT teams and police officers forced to make quick decisions without the equipment they needed to stay safe.

This unit leveraged the computational thinking skills of algorithmic thinking and decomposition. We presented the criminal justice system at a high level as an algorithmic system used to process cases from arrest through sentencing and release – the steps differed depending on the circumstances of the case, but there was always a definitive outcome for the suspect. The American criminal justice system as a whole was decomposed into twelve key issues that students had to decide on in order to build up their own system. There are many more issues we could have had students consider, but it was great to see the wide array of opinions on those we focused on in this first iteration.

Batman is still in prison today, awaiting the results of his second appeal. Even after three weeks of diving deep into the failures of the system that landed him behind bars, no one seemed to think his brand of justice was preferable.

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