Focus on criminal justice reform

By David Wasson, WSU Insider


It was happening again. Another unarmed person of color killed by police. Another grieving city at the breaking point.

A goup of young people, wearing COVID-19-prevention masks, walking on a sidewalk, and carrying signs and a banner that reads "BLACK LIVES MATTER."
WSU students and others marched last spring through Pullman in support of the Black Lives Matter movement (WSU Photo Services) from WSU Insider.

As images of George Floyd suffocating beneath the knee of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin were broadcast globally last spring, Washington State University’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology was mobilizing.

The department already had elevated issues of racism and police violence within its curriculum following the growing string of deadly encounters with law enforcement across America but the unfolding tragedy in Minneapolis had brought the faculty together again. Within days a new and broader commitment was taking shape.

“We are training the next generation of criminal justice professionals and have a responsibility here,” said department Chair Melanie-Angela Neuilly. “Systemic racial bias, fairness and equity are issues we’ve been mindful of and have been including in our curriculum, but we decided to put them at the forefront of everything we do.”

The first step was a bold public statement posted to the department’s website condemning police violence and affirming the faculty’s commitment to education, research and service that promotes more just, equitable and safer communities. Then, capitalizing on an overhaul of the required curriculum, the department reexamined opportunities to make certain students are equipped with the knowledge and skills to lead the criminal justice reforms that are needed.

The changes

A critical component is a topical senior capstone. Relevant issues that had been embedded as part of general coursework now have a priority focus. Research opportunities are being expanded, efforts to increase the department’s diversity are underway, and two new faculty members who specialize in issues of racism, social justice and inequality have been hired.

At the undergrad level, issues of racial bias, police accountability and transparency are part of the new capstone course every student must complete before graduating. For the department’s graduate students, race and policing became a top research priority. For all students, opportunities are being created to get outside the classroom and get involved in social justice awareness projects.

“It’s really a re-imagining of how we can incorporate action into the curriculum,” said David Makin, an associate professor and director of undergraduate education for the department. “It was a concerted effort. We looked at peer institutions, we met with students, we created focus groups and we took a baseline that helped us determine where we should go from here.”

The faculty met regularly to discuss progress and identify additional steps.

“It became clear this was something the entire department was passionate about,” said Dale Willits, an assistant professor who also serves as director of graduate education. “I’d like to think of us as a department that’s very evidence-based and the data on these issues, while not as complete is it should be and probably under-counts the extent of the problems, is still demanding attention.”

The response

Administratively, the department’s strategic goals were updated and all efforts aligned to that vision, helping secure the two new faculty positions.

One is funded through the new Cluster Hire program created by the Provost’s Office and designed to expand faculty expertise in specific areas of need throughout the University system. The other is a staffing commitment made by the College of Arts and Sciences in support of the department’s curriculum overhaul.

Students have embraced the shift. Last fall, for example, they partnered with the department and others across the College of Arts and Sciences to develop and promote a speaker series that featured experts on the impact of disproportionate policing and incarceration practices on Black communities and families.

“I think it’s making strides,” said Keilah Shaw, who was instrumental in developing the speaker series and after graduating this spring will return to Pullman in the fall to begin graduate studies. “What I love about this department is the ability to really connect with faculty, and it’s reassuring when they make something like this a priority. It can have a big impact.”

For the department’s faculty, it’s just the beginning.

“We asked ourselves what does our curriculum look like and how does it fit it into our land grant mission,” said Makin. “The idea is to get us to our goal, which really is more like a milestone because we don’t then just stop. We set the next goal and start working toward that.”

WSU series on race and the American criminal justice system