The United States holds a larger proportion of its population in prison than any other nation in the world. How has this happened, and is it a problem? In this lesson, students will consider whether the nation’s system for addressing crime is effective and consistent with its Constitutional ideals of equality under the law.
Teachers may wish to begin by brainstorming with students on what they already know or believe about crime, punishment and the prison system in America before investigating one or more of the topics below.
1. Does America incarcerate too many people?
Incarceration rates have more than tripled over the last 30 years, in part because of stiffer drug sentencing laws. By 2008 the United States, which makes up less than five percent of the world’s population, held almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Nonviolent offenders make up more than 60 percent of the nation’s 2.3 million prisoners, with nonviolent drug offenders accounting for one quarter of that population.
The rising tide of prisoners has swamped prison systems and strained state budgets; in 2011 the Supreme Court said overcrowding in California amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment” and ordered the state to reduce its prison population.
And consider the case of New York City, which has managed to dramatically reduce both crime and incarceration rates simultaneously over the past 20 years, while prison rates have soared nationally.
- Design an infographic or poster highlighting key facts and consequences of imprisonment in America. Consider which of these statistics you feel are most compelling and read the sources highlighted above and other stories from The New York Times. Our 2008 lesson plan “Doing Time” can also be helpful to provide additional resources, statistics and ideas for completing this activity.
- Practice your research and argumentation skills by holding a class debate, writing a position paper or mailing a letter to a political leader answering the following questions: Are high incarceration rates making our communities safer? Are long prison terms the most effective approach to preventing crime? Are prisons cost-effective?
2. How do long prison terms affect families and communities?
Carl Harris, 47, spent two decades in prison after being convicted of assaulting people in connection with his business dealing crack cocaine. What became of his wife and children while he was away? Read the story “Prison and the Poverty Trap” and take notes on how people in Mr. Harris’s Washington, D.C. neighborhood were affected by having a family member imprisoned for extended periods of time.
- Decide whether reducing the length of prison terms could help such communities, or whether other strategies stand a better chance of reducing poverty and crime. Write a position paper using facts from this and other stories to support your argument and to rebut other perspectives.
3. How have mandatory minimum sentences contributed to higher incarceration rates?
Mandatory minimum sentences, passed by Congress or state legislatures, force judges to impose penalties in some situations. Critics say they have dramatically increased the number and duration of prison sentences. In one case, a woman received a life sentence in prison in connection with a box of drugs she said a boyfriend hid in her house. The judge admitted it was unfair to impose such a sentence, but his hands were tied by the law. Last year the Supreme Court took action against some forms of mandatory sentencing laws, ruling that it was unconstitutional to give mandatory life sentences without parole to juveniles convicted of murder. Courts must “consider the characteristics of a defendant and the details of his offense before sentencing,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan.
- Research other cases that involve mandatory minimum sentencing. Then write a letter to your state or federal legislator in which you make the case for or against such laws.
4. Do policing methods unfairly determine who goes to jail or runs into trouble with the law?
That’s the question in a current case being heard in New York, where a Federal District Court judge is hearing arguments in connection with the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy.
Use New York Times resources to learn about different perspectives on stop-and-frisk so you can develop your own position on the issue:
- Consider the different viewpoints about New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy, and take a position on the issue. Is stop-and-frisk good policing? Does it reduce crime? Does it violate people’s civil rights? Does it erode community trust in the police? Defend your stance in a debate, argumentative essay or newspaper editorial.
- Read this story on the latest developments with stop-and-frisk tactics and make a prediction on whether the court will rule such methods illegal, explaining your legal rationale.
- Are there ways for police departments to ensure that police stops are conducted lawfully? Could New York City learn from Philadelphia, which accepted oversight by an independent monitor along with other measures? Could requiring police officers to wear video cameras reduce unlawful police stops? Write a proposal offering the city advice on how to ensure that its stop-and-frisk policy does not violate anyone’s civil rights.
5. Should juveniles receive special protection in the legal system?
For years, juveniles in some U.S. states and counties have faced particularly harsh consequences for legal infractions or even a simple misbehavior. A federal investigation found that students in Mississippi had been jailed for talking back in class or wearing the wrong socks to school. Now, in some places including the state of Tennessee, governments are creating alternative programs to help reform the behavior of low-level offenders without sending them to jail.
6. Should America’s justice system ever show forgiveness toward people convicted of a violent crime?
On March 28, 2010, Conor McBride shot and killed his fiancé, Ann Grosmaire. A little more than a year later her parents did something unheard-of in their Florida community: They asked the local prosecutor to show leniency.
Read the story, “Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?”, which details the “restorative justice” process that led to Mr. McBride’s sentence of 20 years plus probation rather than life in prison. Do you believe that it benefits society when victims’ families play a role in sentencing violent criminals? And who showed the most bravery in participating in the process — the victim’s family, Mr. McBride or the prosecutor?
- Hold a class vote or four corners exercise on the question of whether forgiveness should be part of criminal sentencing, with students writing individual responses to explain their position. Then discuss this breakdown of reader responses to the same question. Did students and New York Times readers make the same choices?
- Schools are also trying out restorative justice to help at-risk students stay engaged with their classmates and communities. Read this story on efforts at one California school. Can such programs work anywhere to deter misbehavior and student conflict? Consider potential conflicts in your school, and hold a class discussion on ways that restorative justice might be a useful approach.
7. Should the death penalty be outlawed?
Maryland may soon follow 17 other states in outlawing capital punishment, largely because of the advent of DNA technology that has found many death row inmates to be innocent of their crimes. Other states’ death penalty laws have been criticized for giving prosecutors too much power to decide which crimes merit the death penalty. In one case, a man was sentenced to death for kidnapping and first-degree murder, even though by all accounts he was not directly involved in the killing, while accomplices who cooperated with the prosecution may eventually be freed.
- Do you believe there are certain crimes or circumstances that warrant the death penalty, despite the flaws that have been demonstrated in some capital cases? Research the issue and write an essay in which you argue for or against continuation of capital punishment in the United States, taking into account recent events and arguments on both sides of your position.
8. Does the United States Constitution guarantee people the right to a competent lawyer when they get arrested?
Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that even penniless defendants were entitled to competent lawyers when facing serious charges. At the time, the ruling was described as a landmark for the United States legal system. But has America fully embraced its challenge to give all defendants equal treatment under the law?
Read this 2003 article by Anthony Lewis (a longtime Times reporter and columnist who died recently), which describes how a competent lawyer helped the defendant Clarence Earl Gideon to win his case on appeal. Then read the following Opinion pieces on the 50th anniversary of the case.
- Do these writers agree or disagree on the problems facing full implementation of the Gideon ruling? Write an analytical essay in which you evaluate each author’s argument, explaining which writer makes the most persuasive and fact-based case. Or write your own editorial, citing facts of your own choosing, to make a different argument about Gideon v. Wainwright at 50.
Common Core ELA Anchor Standards, 6-12
1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
8. Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
1. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization and analysis of content.
8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
Speaking and Listening
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
3. Understands the sources, purposes, and functions of law, and the importance of the rule of law for the protection of individual rights and the common good
25. Understands issues regarding personal, political, and economic rights
26. Understands issues regarding the proper scope and limits of rights and the relationships among personal, political, and economic rights
Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.
Download the Lesson Plan
In this lesson, students will practice writing, listening, discussion, and research skills as they examine policies around juvenile sentencing in the United States.
Video clips provided with this lesson are from the film 15 to Life: Kenneth's Story, which follows a Florida man who received four life sentences at age 15 for a series of armed robberies. Imprisoned for more than a decade, he believed he would die behind bars. Now a U.S. Supreme Court decision could set him free.
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By the end of this lesson, students will:
- explore recent Supreme Court decisions regarding sentencing juveniles
- debate the United States' policy of sentencing juveniles to life in prison, especially in cases of non-homicide
- discuss Kenneth Young's case in the context of current legislation
- examine how focusing on rehabilitation for juvenile offenders might affect society at-large
9 -- 12
U.S. Government and Politics
ESTIMATED TIME NEEDED
One 50-minute class period and additional time to review extension activities
Clip 1: Kenneth's Story (approx. 8:22 min.)
The clip begins at 1:16 with Paolo Annino (Kenneth's lawyer) discussing the particulars of Kenneth's case and the Graham v. Florida (2010) decision. The clip ends at 9:38 with Chief George Steffen of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office assessing Kenneth's involvement in the robberies.
Clip 2: Juvenile Justice and Rehabilitation (approx. 7 min.)
The clip begins at 29:34 with juvenile incarceration statistics and Pinellas Public Defender Patrice Moore discussing Kenneth's case and some of the factors involved in juveniles ending up in court. The clip includes interviews and court footage relating to Kenneth's case, relating to life sentences and rehabilitation. The clip ends at 36:25 with Kenneth discussing his life before he came to prison.
1. Pursuing Dreams
- Divide students into groups of 3 or 4. Ask each group to read a portion of "Fate of 201 Youthful Offenders in Legal Limbo" by Lloyd Dunkelberger. Invite each group to identify five important things they learned from their selection, and to write them on their chart paper.
- Post the completed chart papers around the room and invite students to participate in a Gallery Walk. Ask students to read each paper and to return to their seats. Invite students to share some of what they learned during the Gallery Walk.
2. Kenneth Young's Story
Show Clip 1. Ask students to discuss the following:
- How does Kenneth's case relate to Dunkelberger's article?
- What are the implications of these Supreme Court decisions on the rest of society?
3. Should Juveniles Be Sentenced to Life Without Parole?
Show Clip 2.
- Ask volunteers to read portions of "About the United States Supreme Court Decision: Graham v. Florida."
- Invite students to compare the experiences and statistics presented in the clip with highlights from Graham v. Florida. Ask students to describe their impression of juvenile justice in America. Considering the articles they've read and what they know about Kenneth's story, what are the pros and cons of sentencing juveniles to life in prison? How about sentencing juveniles to life in prison, even in cases of non-homicide offenses like Kenneth's? What are the pros and cons of offering rehabilitative opportunities to juvenile offenders? Consider the question in relation to: the offender, their family, the victims, and society in general.
Either as homework or in class, if time allows, have students write a short persuasive essay arguing for or against sentencing juveniles to life in prison.
1. Examining Multiple Perspectives
Ask students to research articles and opinion pieces written by those in favor of and those opposing juvenile life sentences. These may include articles from the point of view of juvenile offenders and victims of crimes by juvenile offenders. [A note to teachers: Articles of this nature may be mature and/or include graphic content and should be reviewed.]
Lead students in a debate on the pros and cons of sentencing juveniles to life in prison.
Encourage students to find their own articles, but here are a few to get started:
2. What's Happening In Your State?
Have students investigate legislation in their state around juvenile sentencing. Consider the following questions:
- At what age does your state consider an individual an adult?
- What is your state's current legislation around juvenile sentencing?
- Is your state currently considering new legislation around the issue?
- Do you agree with your state's stance on juvenile sentencing? Why or why not?
Have students write to prison officials and legislators to share their thoughts on the policies.
3. The History of Juvenile Justice in the United States
Have students research the history of the juvenile justice system in the United States, beginning with its establishment in 1899. Invite students to answer the following questions, either as a group discussion, presentations, or short essays:
- Why was the juvenile justice system established?
- How has it changed over time? What factors have contributed to these changes?
15 to Life
The official website for the film includes the trailer and more information about the film.
The POV site for the film includes a more comprehensive discussion guide with additional discussion prompts and activity suggestions.
Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
- SL.9-10.1, 11-12.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade level topics, texts and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
- SL.9-10.1.D Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives, summarize points of agreement and disagreement, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views and understanding and make new connections in light of the evidence and reasoning presented.
- SL. 9-10.2, 11-12.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source.
- SL. 9-10.3, SL.11-12.3 Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis and tone used.
- R.I. 11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.
- W.9-10.2, 11-12.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization and analysis of content.
McREL a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McREL (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning)
- Language Arts, Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.
- Thinking and Reasoning, Standard 3: Effectively uses mental processes that are based on identifying similarities and differences.
- Civics, Standard 18: Understands the role and importance of law in the American constitutional system and issues regarding the judicial protections of individual rights.
- Civics, Standard 19, Level IV (Grade 9-12) 7: Knows how to use criteria such as logical validity, factual accuracy, emotional appeal, distorted evidence and appeals to bias or prejudice in order to evaluate various forms of historical and contemporary political communication.
- Civics, Standard 21: Understands the formation and implementation of public policy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephanie Joy Tisdale is an educator and the Associate Editor of Liberator Magazine. She has spent the last 10 years teaching elementary, middle and high school students. She now works as a curriculum writer and consultant.