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Thursday, April 04, 2013

Helping Scholars in Brazil Understand U.S. Criminal Justice

Professor George Bisharat recently spoke to a group of Brazilian legal scholars about how the U.S. criminal justice system uses plea bargaining.

His talk was part of an ongoing exchange of scholars between UC Hastings and the Federal University Fluminense and other Brazilian law faculties. Exchanges between UC Hastings and international law schools open opportunities for the anthropological study of law, that is, how the law works in practice, as compared with doctrine or theory.

“As I am not an expert in Brazilian law, I see my role as giving Brazilian legal scholars the building blocks to make their own comparisons” between the U.S. and Brazilian criminal justice systems, Bisharat explained. “Of course I hope that these comparisons are useful either in helping Brazilians craft reforms to their legal system or to simply understand better how it actually functions.”

While the U.S. criminal justice system is typically described as one dominated by trial by jury, Bisharat told his international colleagues, that actually happens in only a small percentage of cases, with 95% being resolved through plea bargaining. “I tried to explain how our jury trial system transforms into the plea-bargain machine,” Bisharat said.

It’s troubling, then, that plea bargaining is not taught as part of most law school curricula, he said. It’s covered in some advanced criminal procedure courses, but those focus on the laws about plea bargaining, “not how it actually works,” Bisharat said. “It’s something that deserves much more treatment than a couple of hours in a class, particularly as the U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled that criminal defendants are entitled to effective assistance of counsel in plea bargaining. We need to be teaching students how to become effective negotiators in criminal cases.”

A former public defender in San Francisco, Bisharat teaches plea bargaining in his Criminal Practice Clinic. There, students have two weeks of intensive training, along with video-taped simulation exercises. Then, they work at least 32 hours a week as an extern in a local prosecutor or public defender’s office. Students then debrief with Bisharat and other faculty supervisors.

Bisharat and his Brazilian colleagues take an anthropological approach to the law, he said. It is scholarship based on long-term ethnographic field work, as opposed to library research on legal doctrine. “We are focused on what is actually happening in real court rooms, and why,” and how it links to larger societal goals and pressures. “These worlds are extremely rich and deep. If you spend too little time observing, you might miss crucial but infrequent events,” he said. Bisharat brings that depth of real-world observation and analysis to his classroom and clinic work.

Bisharat studied law, Middle East studies and anthropology at Harvard University with some of the top legal anthropologists in the country who study “law as process.” He then worked as trial lawyer for four years in San Francisco before joining the UC Hastings faculty in 1991. He teaches Criminal Procedure, the Criminal Practice Clinic, Islamic Law, and Law and Social Anthropology.

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