Wednesday, May 12, 2021
By Anna Arons, Guest Contributor, NYU School of Law
This year, my 1L students began law school the same week that police shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake. As they learned criminal law in the Fall, they also learned that a grand jury had failed to indict the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor. And this Spring, they began studying for their final exams just as Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd and as police shot and killed 15-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. They entered the legal profession the same year that millions took to the streets, demanding a reckoning with the racist hierarchies underpinning this country’s legal system – a reckoning that, for many, requires the abolition of the police and the criminal legal system as it exists now.
My students, like students around the country, grappled with what abolition might look like and what it might mean to be a lawyer working within a legal system reflects and entrenches existing racial, class, and gender hierarchies. Yet even as students struggled with these weighty questions, they remained largely unaddressed in the standard 1L curriculum.
This Spring, I attempted to address that gap by introducing a class on abolition into my Lawyering class. Lawyering is a required 1L course that teaches students the essentials of law practice through a series of simulations. Throughout the year, students learn professional skills, and they learn, too, to consider contextual dynamics and to be critical and reflective advocates. In our final unit, students must argue a motion to dismiss in a misdemeanor case where the charges stem from a verbal argument between two residents of a suburban town. This simulation opened the door to have a vibrant discussion of the meaning of abolition and how the same fact pattern might play out in the absence of the criminal legal system.
I aimed to design a 90-minute class that achieved several goals: first, to demystify the word “abolition” and allow students to work through possible versions of it; second, to provide factual and historical context to our current criminal legal system so that students could better understand arguments for or against abolitionist movements; and third, to validate and legitimize the discussions about abolition that students were already having outside the classroom. Above all, I aimed to present abolition as an exciting and accessible concept. Mindful of the perception of abolition as nebulous and overwhelming, I wanted to ground our discussions in specifics, rather than abstract principles. And, my personal views aside, I wanted to present abolition as but one possible approach and to acknowledge the tensions and complications of an abolitionist approach.
To prepare for class, I assigned my students materials that offered possible definitions of abolition and gave concrete examples of abolitionist projects. I asked them to read excerpts of Amna Akbar’s An Abolitionist Horizon for (Police) Reform, which lays out an abolitionist critique of policing, then describes community-based abolitionist projects. For more examples, students could listen to one of several podcast episodes centering on abolitionist movements around the country. Finally, I assigned an excerpt from Issa Kohler-Haussman’s Misdemeanorland, describing how misdemeanors are prosecuted and processed through New York courts. From this, I hoped students would gain a more thorough understanding of our starting point, and see that our misdemeanor-centered simulation was both realistic and higher stakes than it might appear.
In class, I used the familiar disorderly conduct fact pattern from our simulation as a pathway into a broader discussion. Before we began, I reminded my students of class expectations, encouraging them to extend grace to one another and to learn from one another. I reminded them, too, that I did not expect for us to land on any easy answers; rather, I expected that we might find ourselves in tension with our classmates and in tension internally and that sitting with and processing that discomfort is key to thoughtful and reflective lawyering.
With these expectations in place, we moved into a discussion, first in small groups and then as a whole class, in which I asked students to “re-imagine” what the interaction between the defendant and the complainant in our case might look like in a world in which police were not the tool of first resort. My students participated enthusiastically, brainstorming and working through alternate scenarios ranging from a restorative justice-oriented mediation to hand-to-hand combat. From there, we zoomed out: through a brief lecture, I traced the growth of policing and prosecution in New York, starting with the racist roots of modern policing and moving into the Broken Windows and stop-and-frisk era, before we transitioned to a class discussion centering on the goals of our current criminal legal system and how the current system achieves or does not achieve those goals. As class drew to a close, I offered several possible definitions of abolition, and students returned to small groups to reflect on how the alternatives they had brainstormed earlier fit with those definitions, as well as how their alternatives would achieve the goals of the criminal legal system.
My students participated openly and enthusiastically in this class, more so than any other class of the year. Though we devoted just one class to abolition, out of the hundreds of hours 1Ls spend in class, students expressed gratitude for the space to consider abolition within an academic setting. Some reported that it eased the cognitive dissonance they felt throughout the year between their discussions about the legal system outside the classroom and their discussions within it; others found it meaningful to discuss abolition rigorously and as a legitimate topic of study; and others, with less background in the area, appreciated building a more thorough understanding of what abolition might mean, beyond headlines and social media posts.
Our discussion also rippled through the remainder of our misdemeanor simulation, as students arguing for the defense raised policy arguments regarding the wisdom of using court resources on such a case, while students on the prosecution side not only prepared for those arguments but also considered whether this was a case they should be pursuing. Whether students identified as abolitionists or expressed more faith in our current criminal legal system, they told me that the class led them to take their misdemeanor case more seriously and to reflect on how it felt to be a lawyer –a prosecutor or a public defender – in the criminal legal system. All year, I’ve told my students that lawyering does not take place in the abstract: laws have real, concrete consequences that affect millions of people’s lives every day. Thus, to be effective, ethical lawyers, they must learn not just the rote mechanics of practice; they must learn, too, to sit with and process the political and social context and the consequences of their work. This class created an opening for students to practice those skills.
I do not claim that this single class resolved the question of abolition for any of my students, nor do I expect for it to resolve my students’ concerns about their roles as lawyers, but I offer up this experience in hopes that it helps other instructors bridge the divide between the oft-staid 1L curriculum and students’ – and this country’s – most pressing concerns.