Good educators are acutely aware of the influence they can have over young minds, and the best of us try to wield our influence responsibly. As the director of the criminal justice program at a career-focused college, recent events have highlighted the gravity of my work. I am uniquely positioned, and in fact obligated, to help to effect real change by designing and delivering an anti-racist criminal justice curriculum.
The news clips of the past weeks are unforgettable. George Floyd slowly and horribly killed by a police officer with a history of employment problems; militaristic police violently reacting to peaceful protests; and a divisive president calling on police to use gas to clear a peaceful protest for a photo op. These images remind me that our nation and many of our institutions are violent and racist, and that power in the wrong hands left largely unchecked is dangerous to a society with any hope of being truly free.
More specifically, they hold in stark relief the racism that permeates our criminal justice system, its policy and its practices, at all levels: law enforcement, the courts, and the correctional system.
Reforming Criminal Justice Education
The need for reform has never been more apparent, and it is important to remember that because our society and its systems are subject to change, we can take power from those who abuse it. Racist policy can be changed, and we can hold members of law enforcement and other criminal justice professionals to the highest, anti-racist standards.
One step in that direction is to offer students of criminal justice an education that prepares them for 21st century policing and criminal justice careers. Our job in that regard is to educate them not only to be skilled, smart, ethical professionals, but to be anti-racist as well.
Today’s criminal justice students can choose from a wide range of careers in the field, including law enforcement, cybercrime, court work, corrections, and restorative justice. Curriculum in most criminal justice programs tie to those career choices. Many law enforcement professionals also benefit from knowledge of social work and social justice. At Champlain College, we have already added courses in social justice, as well as an internship in which students work with criminal justice faculty to teach legal research skills to inmates in Vermont prisons.
Curriculum must also include courses about the racial and racist history of the criminal justice system, and anti-racist curriculum must be embedded in every course in the program in order to foster discussion about race in every aspect of criminal justice, including criminal procedure, investigation, investigative interviewing, and police operations.
External partners are also critical in efforts to remake the criminal justice curriculum. They may include an advisory board that brings an anti-racist perspective to iterative reviews of the program, and speakers who bring diverse expertise to a range of topics and provide even more voices on these issues.
Partnering With Law Enforcement is Crucial
Cultivating partnerships with law enforcement is also critical. We have several law enforcement professionals serving as long-time adjunct faculty, and we have built relationships with local agencies where our students intern. Recently, we have submitted a proposal to partner with the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council to host a police academy on campus, one that would supplement only one other in the state.
Our proposal embeds social justice curriculum and emphasizes de-escalation training, cultural competency, community outreach, diversity and inclusion, and a collegial training approach. Students who wish to become law enforcement officers in local agencies can already attend the Vermont police academy for credit during the second semester of their senior year. The new academy would allow them to accomplish the same goal without leaving campus.
The director of the college’s social work program and I are also in the process of developing multidisciplinary course work and experiential learning opportunities through a community justice major or minor that would allow students to examine social, racial, environmental, and economic justice as an entire field of study. Given the national conversation around the intersection of social work and criminal justice, the time has come to weave together these kindred disciplines.
The criminal justice system is at a crossroads, as is the whole of our society. Human lives are at stake, and that makes our programs all the more essential. The changes I suggest here are long overdue: the privileged and advantaged in this country have always been protected by private and public systems.
The best aim of the criminal justice system is to provide protection and justice for those most vulnerable and least able to pay for it. It is time to accept the challenge of creating a relevant, beneficial, anti-racist criminal justice program, and criminal justice system.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Tony Perriello is assistant dean of the Education and Human Studies Division and Criminal Justice Program director at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt.