Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Contesting Viewpoints in the Classroom

What I witnessed in my class today could be a function of the subject matter or it could be a reflection of teaching in a southern state. Which is the case may not be discernable. The course in question is a criminology class. For the majority of the semester we have been discussing theories of crime (i.e. possible explanations for the causes of crime). Only recently have we started looking at the types of crime such as crimes against the person, crimes against propery, public order offenses, white collar crime, etc.

Today's discussion concerned rape, assault, and robbery. As is my practice, I asked students to work on a case study in small groups. Each group was presented with a real case that went to court involving a 14 year old juvenile who had committed the offenses of rape and robbery. The case involved aggravating factors (such as gang membership and behavioral issues). Students were tasked with the following: (1) Should the juvenile be waived to adult court; (2) Can a 14 year old understand the consequences of their actions; and (3) Do any of the available typologies of rapists and robbers apply in this case? Seems simple enough.

Wrong. The class was divided half and half on whether the juvenile should be waived into adult court. A portion lamented that the death penalty no longer applies (this is the result of Roper v. Simmons (2005)). Another portion was quite concerned about the victim (rightfully so). As a result, there was a wide spectrum of responses as to what should be done. For instance, those favoring juvenile court felt there might be a chance for rehabilitation. Those favoring adult court suggested that the juvenile deserved to be punished. I welcome such diversity of opinion.

Ultimately, a few things occurred that caught my attention. First, although there is an emphasis on rehabilitation for first time offenders the class did not feel this should apply. Second, I was pleased to see that everyone saw how contentious and difficult judicial decisions can be in real life given their experiences working in groups on this case. Third, when I revealed how the case was handled...there wasn't much shock at the outcome. The juvenile in question was actually transfered to adult court and received a deteriminate sentence of 40 years.

In the end, my goal was accomplished. But I can't help but wonder what social forces are at play which create some views of justice that are not necessarily congruent with real life cases. Perhaps this is my naivete or perhaps there is a cultural force at work that provides some support for the subculture of violence thesis suggested by Wolfgang and Ferracuti.

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