Criminal Justice Practicum - Students Explore Harms Borne in Life Behind Bars


This spring in the new Criminal Justice Policy Reform Practicum, students can do a hands-on work with community or national organizations to address one of two aspects of criminal justice reform -- meeting victims’ needs or creating fair processes for those accused or convicted of having committed a crime.

Professor Donna Coker

The 2-credit practicum is in conjunction with the Criminal Justice Policy Reform Seminar, both led by Professor Donna Coker

Coker's scholarship focuses on criminal law, and gender and race inequality. She is a nationally recognized expert in domestic violence law and policy.  Her research concerns three major areas: the connection between economic vulnerability and domestic violence; restorative justice approaches to gender violence; and gender and racial fairness in criminal law doctrine and procedures.  

“With approximately two million people behind bars, the U.S. leads the world in the percentage of people behind bars,” Coker said. “These incarceration rates are marked by shocking racial disparities.  African American women are imprisoned at a rate nearly three times that of white women.  Nearly 40% of male prisoners and 25% of female prisoners are African Americans, even though African Americans are only about 13% of the U.S. population.”

Coker is committed to looking at the entire system response.  “Too often fair treatment for victims is presumed to somehow be in opposition to fair treatment of those who are accused of committing harm.  The reality is that the biases that negatively shape police responses to those accused of crime also shape their responsiveness to victims of crime.”

Coker points to the result of a 2015 survey she co-authored, Responses from the Field: Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, and Policing. The ACLU sponsored report presents the results of a national survey of more than 900 advocates and service providers for victims of sexual assault on domestic violence. The Survey found significant police bias against victims of color, LGBT victims, immigrant victims, and low-income victims.  

Coker also notes that the harms of mass incarceration are borne not only by those arrested and incarcerated, but by their families and entire neighborhoods. “We need a holistic approach that is focused on the needs of victims for protection and healing, that is less punitive for those accused, and that builds communities in ways that prevent violence.”

Students in the practicum will spend 100-hours working on criminal justice policy reform initiatives with community or national organizations that are meeting victims’ needs and creating fair processes for those accused or convicted of having committed a crime.

The practicum and the seminar will further examine the numerous reform efforts and proposals aimed at reducing sentencing length and creating alternatives to incarceration. These reforms include sentencing rollback legislation in a number of states, limits on prosecutorial discretion, and the introduction of alternatives to incarceration including Restorative Justice approaches.

More on practicums and hands-on learning at Miami Law.