Criminal Justice Policy: Corrections and Sentencing


Course Overview

Few policy issues have had as big an impact on the Texas political or social landscape as criminal justice, and fewer still have such a hold on the popular imagination.  Yet it is only recently that debate about criminal justice policy has started to take account of the financial and social costs of our state's incarceration policies.  Time and again, public officials at all levels and in all branches of government find themselves confronting the thorny problems presented by the policy choices the state has made in the criminal justice arena.

This course will force us to go beyond the simplistic debates between "tough on crime" and "soft on crime" rhetoric, and confront the hard policy questions that mirror the daily challenges faced by policy-makers and public officials.  For example, how can policy-makers safely and effectively downsize our massive prison system?  How can legislators protect the public from people who have committed serious or violent crimes, especially while facing immense budget pressures?  Should the pretrial bail system be based on a person’s risk or his ability to pay money bail?  Should any limits be placed on judicial or prosecutorial discretion?  What role does race play in the criminal justice system, and how should public officials take into account the impact of criminal justice practices on minority communities and families?  When is it appropriate for a court to intervene to improve prison or jail conditions?  What forms of external oversight should exist when it comes to prison operations?  Are humane prisons possible?

Although the course will have a heavy focus on Texas' criminal justice policies and practices, we will often refer to the experiences of other states and other countries to examine a range of practices in this field and to explore alternative options for developing policy.

We will also take advantage of the Texas legislative session to observe legislative hearings and get a close-up look at the policy development process on various criminal justice policy issues.


Students in this interdisciplinary seminar (cross-listed with Law) will gain a firm understanding of the key criminal justice policy challenges facing public officials.  Students will begin to appreciate the complexity of these issues; understand how both good and bad policies are developed; understand the financial and social costs of criminal justice policy decisions; recognize the extent to which criminal justice issues have an impact on almost every aspect of government; and explore the relationship between law, constitutional requirements, the administration of justice, and public policy.  Students will also learn practical policy research and writing skills.  Additionally, students will learn about the Texas legislative process.

Course Materials, Prison Visit, Outside Speakers, and Legislative Hearings

Each topic will be examined critically through a wide range of readings, including empirical studies, essays, books, statutes, legal cases, and official reports.  The reading load can be very heavy at times, but it is all interesting material.  We will also try to arrange a visit to a prison and a jail to help ground our discussion.  (This "view from the inside" is a highlight of the course.)  We may have opportunities to hear from guest speakers, including potentially a national expert/advocate, a prison agency official, and a former prisoner, all of whom have been deeply involved in policy-making or practice in this area.  Finally, students will be required to observe a relevant legislative hearing and track proposed criminal justice legislation.

Course Requirements

This seminar is dependent upon an informed and lively discussion.  Students are expected to attend all classes, do all the reading, and come to class with thoughtful comments or questions about their reading assignments.  Class participation is critical and will be considered in grading.  Students will be required to undertake an original research project on a topic of their choice and to write a 10-page issue brief about their topic.  Additionally, students will write two policy memos, one on a designated criminal justice issue, and the other on a bill pending before the Texas Legislature.  Students will also submit an ungraded journal entry about their responses to the prison visit.