Ethics, Morals, and Criminal Law

Inherent within criminal law and justice is the power to make discretionary decisions that greatly impact the accused, victims, and society.  This course exposes students to historical and contemporary issues that generate interaction between ethics and criminal justice.  It will examine macro and micro attempts in recent history to ethically balance public safety and “moral” behavior against the rights of individuals in the crafting, application and practice of criminal law.  It begins with a brief framework of ethical theory and professional rules of conduct, allowing students to consider ethical or unethical approaches undertaken by legislators, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, law enforcement officers, judges, the accused and correction officials. Students will discover the complexity of determining what an ethical course of action or result means to this wide variety of criminal justice actors, and how they draw upon personal bias, experience and cultural context in interpreting what is ethical.  The specific issues that will be covered include: the prosecution and defense of both guilty and innocent people; wrongful convictions; just and unjust punishment; criminal prohibition and prosecution of specific drug use, possession and sales; and the criminalization, prosecution, and defense of select forms of marriage and sexual activity.  Readings, documentaries, podcasts and the selection of guest speakers are designed to provide students with diverse professional and personal perspectives from a variety of racial, economic, ethnic, geographic and philosophical backgrounds. In written work and in class discussions, students will grapple with how they would resolve ethical issues in criminal law according to their own values, beliefs and appreciation for the boundaries of the law and professional ethics.