Briefing Room

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Berman stays at the forefront of criminal justice reform through innovation

September 16, 2016 | Faculty

It is an exciting time to be Professor Douglas A. Berman. He has written passionately about criminal justice reform for over a decade and the issue has finally made its way on to the agenda of both major political parties.

“What has brought new energy to the movement is the concept that the bill is coming due, both in fiscal terms and humanitarian terms on the modern overreliance on incarceration as a default form of punishment,” Berman said. “Those bills coming due are particularly salient for states. I wrote a lot more than a decade ago that this was going to have an impact in the long-run that even the most conservative, tough-on-crime politician was going to have to grapple with in the future.”

In the past few years, Berman has become a go-to resource for policymakers on the topic, fielding phone calls, providing testimony, drafting expert reports, and writing an enormous volume of articles and blog posts.

“Building the coalition necessary in these incredibly divisive times is hard, even though everyone agrees reform is needed. Let’s not let the best be the enemy of the good and let’s get something in place,” he said. “Inertia is a very powerful force and having reforms, even if they are seemingly minor, sends a powerful message when it comes to recasting our commitment for how we are using incarceration, particularly at the federal level.”

Berman is bringing his experiences into the classroom and uses his blog, which has nearly 10 million views, to engage students in conversations about current topics. Each class Berman teaches has a blogging element that requires students to read and comment on a regular basis.

“What is really fun about it is that unlike class where I will script a lot of hypotheticals that are designed to tease out the next implications of the cases we read or the next issue we are facing doctrinally, there is often enough of a real-world skew that the students have to struggle in some sense to figure out how this matches up with what we are reading,” he said.

The blogs around Berman’s new Marijuana Law and Policy class have been particularly salient recently. As part of the class, students must research and write about a niche topic or question, posting material on the blog multiple times. The content often creates a significant amount of outside interest and comments from readers.

Berman’s interest in marijuana law stems from his research in sentencing. After following the topic of marijuana reform closely and blogging on it, Berman proposed the new class at Moritz, which is one of the only courses like it in the country. As expected, there were initially snickers.

“After Colorado and Washington enacted full marijuana reform, the train was going to move a lot faster and implicate a lot more topics, players, and dynamics than anybody could even begin to anticipate. That is what really drove me—there is so much ‘there’ there,” Berman explained. “The fact people are snickering reinforced my sense that no one was really paying attention. I love connecting with other lawyers and policymakers who share my excitement for this new area of legal reform.  It is important to help the people who are flooding into this space make sure they are asking the right questions, looking at the right issues, and being as responsible as I would like to see them being in working through what is now afoot, especially when this has moved so quickly.  The fact a named professor at an elite law school is consistently saying ‘take this seriously’ is important.  I am uniquely positioned to say this because if we don’t, the people who will define where this all goes will be the people with their own agendas.”

Classes Taught

Criminal Law • Criminal Punishment and Sentencing • Criminal Procedure – Investigation • The Death Penalty • Legislation • Legislation Clinic  • Marijuana Law and Policy • Legal Writing and Analysis I and II