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New course analyzes the role of progressive prosecutors in the criminal justice reform movement

September 30, 2021

A gavel rests on an open law textbook in court archive text collection study room of Biddle Law Library
A gavel rests on an open law textbook in court archive text collection study room of Biddle Law Library
Using Philadelphia as a microcosm, “Criminal Justice Reform and the Progressive Prosecution Movement will analyze the emerging trend of progressive prosecutors’ offices and discuss how their strategies fit into a larger movement for criminal justice reform.

Larry Krasner drew national attention when he – a civil rights attorney with a long history of suing the District Attorney’s Office – won the election for Philadelphia’s District Attorney in 2017 on a platform of decarceration and increased funding for social programs. Now, Professor of Law Sandra Mayson and Lecturer in Law and Senior Policy Advisor for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office Dana Bazelon are using Philadelphia as an apt lens through which to teach students about the complicated laws and policies pertaining to progressive prosecutors and their place within the broader movement for criminal justice reform.

Sandra Mayson, Professor of Law Sandra Mayson, Professor of LawIn Mayson and Bazelon’s course,Criminal Justice Reform and the Progressive Prosecution Movement,” students will engage in discussions related to policies that prosecutors wrestle with on a daily basis, such as how (or if) to prosecute low-level crimes, when pre-trial detention is (or is not) necessary, and how (or if) the law should approach mental illness and substance abuse.

Throughout the semester, students will be asked to read, listen to, and watch multimedia content from some of the most prominent thinkers in the contemporary criminal justice reform movement. The assignments span mainstream cultural media, law review articles, and cutting-edge empirical studies. Among them are Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, the Harvard Law Review’s 2020 special issue on prison abolition, which features George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights Dorothy Roberts’s forewordAbolition Constitutionalism,” episodes of the PBS docuseries “Philly DA,” and selections from the popular podcast “Serial.”

In addition to immersing themselves in course materials and participating in discussions, students will also hear from a range of guest speakers and spend time observing court proceedings in Philadelphia. As a final project, each student will be required to complete research that contributes to an ongoing area of criminal justice reform.

Mayson, who enjoys learning from her students every time she teaches this subject, likes to think of the course as a “group project,” indicating that students, professors, lawyers, and activists all have critical roles to play in the multi-dimensional movement for criminal justice reform.

Dana Bazelon, Lecturer in Law Dana Bazelon, Lecturer in LawBazelon emphasized the privilege of getting to study the progressive prosecutor movement in Philadelphia, wherein Krasner has drawn ample attention for his pathbreaking work. For her, one of the most valuable aspects of the course is the ability for students to spend time both in courtrooms and behind-the-scenes at the District Attorney’s offices, gaining nuanced understandings of how these incredibly complicated systems of law enforcement function and where there is opportunity for meaningful, transformative change.

Calling the course “a very Philadelphia story,” Mayson explained how it path began years ago, when she and Bazelon met at Germantown Friends High School. The two stayed in touch over the years as they both attended law school and pursued careers in criminal justice reform. Mayson regularly invited Bazelon to share her expertise as a guest speaker during courses that she taught at the University of Georgia School of Law. More recently, as Mayson was deciding where to continue her teaching career, the possibility of co-teaching a course with Bazelon made the choice to return to Philadelphia and teach at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School all the more appealing.

As the nation continues to engage in monumental conversations about the intersections between criminal justice, racial justice, and law enforcement, Mayson and Bazelon both reflected on the timely nature of the course and underscored the importance of students learning to engage critically in crucial criminal justice reform policy discussions. They both expressed that their greatest hope is for students to leave the course with better perceptions of how the criminal justice system works and deeper appreciations of the challenges – and opportunities – it presents to social justice reformers.

Learn more about Penn Law’s pioneering curricular offerings.