Michael Pittaro Ph.D.

The Crime and Justice Doctor

Integrating Racial Concerns into Criminal Justice Curricula

Criminal justice professors play an important role in criminal justice reform.

Posted Aug 27, 2020

Few can deny that we are living in an era of unprecedented political division, widescale civil unrest, widespread racial inequity and inequality, and loud cries for police reform. To compound matters, we are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic leading to heated discussions pertaining to whether we should reopen our nation's businesses and our schools and universities. 

With so many uncertainties, as far as our future goes, we desperately need to stop talking about change and actually start taking the required steps toward change. This is one of the many reasons why I have chosen to serve as the editor of a forthcoming book, Global Perspectives on Criminal Justice Reform, in which I am currently soliciting chapter proposals from criminal justice reform experts across the world. 

Tingey / Unsplash
Lady Justice
Source: Tingey / Unsplash

The American criminal justice system has traditionally implemented the same public policies, programs, and practices over the past five decades with few adjustments, yet we surprisingly hope for a different outcome in the form of lower crime and recidivism rates. It reminds me of the quote by Albert Einstein, which states that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

After working within the criminal justice system for the past three decades as both a practitioner and educator, I am often asked the question, "should criminal justice reform be a priority in the upcoming election?" You betcha! But instead of working together, we simply blame each other (Democrats and Republicans alike) for society’s problems rather than uniting as a country.

In my view, we need to embrace what I often refer to as the five C’s in order to move forward and to start to heal as a nation: Communication, Collaboration, Cooperation,  Commitment, and Compassion. To me, these are five of the main pillars in any relationship—whether it is personal, professional, political, or social. When we believe that everything we think, say, and do is correct and everyone else is wrong, change will not occur because you are unwilling to entertain another opinion, point of view, or perspective. 

Bill Oxford / Unsplash
Source: Bill Oxford / Unsplash

As a nation, many are consumed with Anger, which has the notorious distinction of clouding our thoughts and overshadowing rational, intellectual thinking. That, to me, is where we are as a nation.  This "all or nothing" mentality can be highly destructive as we have seen and will likely continue to see in the upcoming years if we remain on this current trajectory. We desperately need to meet somewhere in the middle with a little "give and take" from each side. Growth comes from holding yourself accountable, taking responsibility, admitting when you are wrong, and owning your mistakes.

Racial disparity is a significant issue and always has been within our nation’s judicial system. The statistics have consistently shown this to be true. I also feel the need to emphasize that that disparity also extends to one’s gender and socioeconomic standing. If you compare the arrest and subsequent sentencing statistics between males and females, the sentences for females is more times than not, less stringent for similar crimes. If you are poor, you are far more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to a long prison sentence when compared to someone who hails from wealth. The recent college scandal is a perfect example of socioeconomic disparity in sentencing.

Simply take a glimpse into our nation’s prisons and jails and you will see a significantly disproportionate number of young African Americans males who tend to be undereducated and under-skilled (as far as employment skills), who were raised in impoverished communities riddled with high rates of substance abuse, mental illness, high unemployment, and oftentimes, violence. These are what we refer to as "risk factors." We need to tip the scales towards the implementation of programs, policies, and resources that are intended to minimize the risk factors and strengthen what are known as protective factors.

Etty Fidele / Unsplash
Source: Etty Fidele / Unsplash

This is what brings me to Joshua Abreu’s article in The Crime Report. Abreu noted that a criminal justice degree is one of the most awarded degrees in the country, making college criminal justice programs “training hubs for future criminal justice practitioners." Yet, according to Abreu, only about 20 percent of those criminal justice programs require coursework on race and gender. Additionally, African American faculty only represent a mere 6 percent of all criminal justice programs nationwide.

Abreu emphasized that the lack of courses and perspectives of African American faculty suggests that universities are failing to educate a significant percentage of criminal justice students about racism, and in essence, colleges may be perpetuating racist criminal justice ideals and practices.

Furthermore, some criminal justice educators believe their students have a “limited and at times, punitive, understanding of the criminal justice system,” which derives from their upbringing, schooling, and of course, social media. In response, Abreu suggests that criminal justice instructors should integrate instructional practices that enable academic success among Black and Latinx students using what he describes as, “instructional equity,” particularly given that about 40 percent of criminal justice degree recipients are African American or Latinx. By doing so, criminal justice educators can ensure that the people most negatively impacted by systemic discrimination are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and academic credentials to make substantial changes in their communities.

LinkedIn / Unsplash
Source: LinkedIn / Unsplash

At times, we, as criminal justice professors, forget that we have the ideal platform to create positive social change by creating future leaders. We can plant the seeds of positive social change in our students. Our views and the words we share have meaning with the students in our courses. In my view, we must integrate discussions into our courses that address the often sensitive, controversial topics—the very topics that warrant the most attention