What to Do: The State of the Criminal Justice System

From Women and Girls Lead, Vol. 3: Women, Girls, & the Criminal Justice System collection, lesson plan 3 of 7

Time: (90 minutes + assignment)

Essential Question: How effective is our criminal justice system?

Film modules and activities adapted from the film Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story

Purpose of the Lesson: The prison population has exploded in the United States over the last several decades. One in 100 Americans — 2.3 million people — are currently in jail or prison. The female prison population has increased 800 percent in the same period. Approximately one in 43 young people (and one in 15 African American youth) has an incarcerated parent. These numbers, combined with high recidivism rates and shrinking state budgets, are leading people to consider reforms and other criminal justice models. In this lesson, students will look at restorative justice as a competing model, learn more about the state of the criminal justice system, and express their opinions about the topic to an elected leader.

Objectives: * Analyze trends in the prison population and public policy approaches to it * Examine restorative justice as an alternate criminal justice model * Reflect on the personal impact of incarceration * Identify examples of bipartisanship in the area of prison reform * Write a letter to an elected official that outlines ways to make the criminal justice system more effective

Skills: Stating and supporting opinions in class discussion and in writing; critical reading and viewing; research; writing; note taking; oral presentation

Materials: Note: All Teacher and Student Handouts can be downloaded by clicking on “Download materials” button at the left of this page

Note: Through the previous film modules, students have been introduced to teen girls that are in the criminal justice system. Chances are, your students may have had contact with the criminal justice system directly or indirectly through incarcerated friends or family members. For that reason, bringing up “the system” can be a challenge. Tell students that this lesson may make them angry or upset but to think about how they can use those feelings constructively. You may let them know that others share those feelings and are doing something about it. Refer to resources at the end of the lesson. We believe that, ultimately, having knowledge of this big-picture understanding of the criminal justice system is empowering and essential for those affected by it.

Share with students the statistics in the "Purpose of the Lesson" section and ask for their response. Why do they think the numbers are so high? What do they think should be done about it? How have their families and their communities been impacted by incarceration? What do they think should be done when a juvenile commits a serious crime like murder? After the discussion, tell students that a consensus is emerging to improve the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.

Activity: Mythbusting

In this activity, students will be asked to consider their opinions about common myths and misconceptions of the criminal justice system. Part of the objective is for students to identify examples of both negative and positive trends so that they are prepared to more objectively evaluate the effectiveness of the system.

Label two areas of the classroom as "True" and "False," leaving an area labeled "Not Sure" in the middle. Pass out "Student Handout B: Mythbusters" and read the first statement. Allow students to move to the area of the class that reflects their position on the statement. Each time students move, take the time to have at least one person at each position voice why they are standing there. Then give students the correct answer and allow them time to write the answer on their handout. Repeat these steps for each statement. Use these materials as references:
Five myths about Americans in prison
Facts About Prisons and Prisoners

  • California spends more on higher education (UC and Cal State systems) than on prisons. (False — It spends 10 percent on prisons and 7 percent on higher education. Source: Prison Policy Initiative)
  • Nearly one in four of all prisoners worldwide are incarcerated in America. (True — Source: Mother Jones)
  • Texas is leading the way in reducing the prison population, recently closing a 1,100-bed facility. (True — Source: The New York Times)
  • Juvenile offenders can receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for nonviolent offenses. (False — This is due to the recent Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Florida. Source: Equal Justice Initiative)
  • Approximately 65 percent of female prisoners were convicted of nonviolent crimes, including 29 percent convicted of drug offenses. (True — Source: The Sentencing Project)
  • Drug courts are more effective than incarceration at reducing recidivism for drug offenses. (True — Source: Right on Crime)
  • Approximately 50,000 youth are discharged from the criminal justice system every year. (False — The number is 100,000. Source: The Sentencing Project)
  • When you include people on probation and parole, the adult prison population rises to 3 million people. (False — The number is 7.2 million. Source: The Sentencing Project)
  • More than four out of 10 offenders nationwide return to state prison within three years of release. (True — Source: The Pew Center on the States)
  • Congress appropriated $83 million for reentry programs in fiscal year 2011, slightly less than $120 per released prisoner. (True — Source: The Washington Post)
  • Budget cuts are forcing states to explore ways to reduce their prison population. (True — Source: The New York Times)
  • About 50 percent of all women entering state prisons are mothers. (False — The number is 66 percent. Source: The Sentencing Project)
  • Prison reform, or making changes that reduce the number of people in prison, is supported by members of both the Democratic and Republican Parties. (True — Source: The Daily Beast)

When all of the statements have been read, ask students to choose the one they think most indicates the ineffectiveness of the system. Ask them to write a brief explanation for their choice on their handout, then ask several students to share their responses.

Review information about the film Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story again with students. Tell students that in this module, they will be looking at whether Cyntoia should be tried as an adult and what should be done when juveniles commit serious crimes like murder. Watch "Film Module 3: What to Do: The State of the Criminal Justice System." Students should take notes on how the criminal justice system handled Cyntoia’s case. After the module, review student notes and make it clear that: a) Cyntoia was tried as an adult, b) she was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, and c) she is not eligible for parole until she serves 53 years of her sentence.

Lead a discussion based on the following questions: * Cyntoia’s mom, Georgina, says she feels responsible for the fact that Cyntoia is in prison. Do you agree? Who do you think is responsible for Cyntoia’s crime? * Dr. Bennet asks the question: “What is the right thing to do when a teenager commits this kind of crime?” What do you think should be done? * Many states throughout the country try juveniles as adults, especially for serious crimes. Do you agree with this policy? * Dr. Bennet said that he doesn’t think teens should be given life sentences. Do you agree or disagree? * The prosecutor, Jeff Burks, asks where do we draw the line between rehabilitating a juvenile and locking them up. Where do you think that line should be drawn? * What do you think Cyntoia can do with her life to make up for the harm she has caused?

Activity: Restorative Justice Artwork

There is an alternative model for dealing with crime, called restorative justice. While it emphasizes dialogue and healing instead of focusing on punishment, restorative justice is not synonymous with forgiveness. Forgiveness can come out of a restorative justice process, but does not necessarily. This is an important distinction because the false expectation of forgiveness can actually be harmful to someone on their healing journey, as it can create pressure to forgive, and then guilt if that doesn't actually happen.

Restorative justice is usually achieved through victim offender mediation. In the restorative justice program Bridges to Life, victims tell inmates their stories as a way to build empathy and accountability, with the hope that this will reduce future crimes. Have students listen to and view images of this program. Lead a discussion based on these questions: * How is restorative justice different from the traditional criminal justice system? * What advantages and disadvantages do you think it has over the traditional model? * Like many juvenile offenders, Cyntoia is both a victim and an offender. What might applying a restorative justice model look like in her case? * How do victims use restorative justice as a way to heal? * Would you be willing to participate in a restorative justice program either by telling your story as a victim or, if you have committed a crime, by meeting with the victim of the crime? What would the challenges of participating in such a program be?

Restorative justice is rooted in peace and reconciliation. Ask students to think about what those words mean to them. They should brainstorm visual images that represent their ideas. Provide paper and art supplies and have students create a visual piece of artwork about restorative justice. Students can use these questions to guide their work: What is reconciliation? Is reconciliation necessary to achieve peace in a community where there is violence? Is reconciliation always possible? What is the difference between reconciliation and forgiveness? Is there someone in our life who we have not forgiven? What would that person need to do to receive our forgiveness? When assignments are completed, encourage students to present their work and post drawings around the room to create a collage or mural. If cameras are available, students can also create short videos about restorative justice.

Assignment: Letter Writing

Have students write to an elected official about incarceration rates, restorative justice, and the state of the criminal justice system, and in the letter address the question, how effective is our criminal justice system? They should refer to the "Mythbusters" handout for facts and figures and conduct additional research if the setting permits.

When answering the question, allow students to write as themselves or to choose one of the following roles: * The mother of a child who has committed a crime * The child of a mother who has committed a crime * A victim of a crime * A member of the community where a crime has been committed

In the letter, the writer can also weigh in on pending legislation relating to criminal justice at both the state and national levels. Alternatively, they can model their piece on KQED’s Perspectives series and do an audio recording of their assignment. Learn more about the Perspectives series.

At the federal level, students can weigh in on the National Criminal Justice Commission Act.

At the state level, this resource provides updates on pending legislation.

Resources for the conservative position on prison reform and restorative justice can be found here: * rightoncrime.com * prisonfellowship.org * thedailybeast.com

  1. Read the article about the Lipscomb Initiative For Education (LIFE) program and Cyntoia’s participation.

    Discuss the article with the class using these guiding questions:

    • Do you think the LIFE program has restorative justice features?
    • What impact does the class have on students?
    • What impact did the class have on Professor Shipp?
    • Does participating in this program allow Cyntoia to repair some of the harm she has caused?
  2. Use this PBS site to allow students to respond to the question of whether they think minors should be tried as adults.

    Furthermore, they can learn more about the perspective of victims by visiting the National Center for Victims of Crime.

  3. If students are in a juvenile detention center, they undoubtedly have questions about their particular cases. Work with them to create a class guide or fact sheet about more generally navigating the legal system and related legal resources. Students should conduct further research to gather information. Where possible, access prison legal services to assist with this project.

    Note: To see what it would look like to teach restorative justice principles in-depth to those affected by incarceration, review the curriculum from the organization Community Works.

    Criminal Justice Action Resources

  • Film module:
    What to Do: The State of the Criminal Justice System

Download lesson materials