The Legacy of Criminal Justice Reform

Lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall led a civil rights revolution in the 20th century that forever changed the landscape of American society. Yet Marshall’s work as a civil rights attorney to knock down segregation lies largely unfinished. This lesson plan explores Marshall, Andrea James, and Robert F. Kennedy’s legacy of criminal justice reform in a time defined by the rise of the New Jim Crow, a term coined by Michelle Alexander in reference to the racial inequalities present in the criminal justice system today.

As we build a bridge between the past and the present and reflect on the work of the advocates of then and now, students should keep one question in mind: What do we do next? Students have an opportunity to join the growing coalition of human rights defenders pushing for criminal justice reform. Learners will research statistics on mass incarceration, urge lawmakers to pass legislation that results in a more fair criminal legal system, and work with local organizations that serve families of people who were formerly or are currently incarcerated.

Thurgood Marshall was born in 1908, in Baltimore. He was denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School due to segregation and went on to graduate first in his class from Howard University Law School. Marshall represented the local NAACP chapter in a successful lawsuit that challenged the University of Maryland Law School’s segregation policy. In 1936, he became the NAACP’s chief legal counsel and founded their Legal Defense Fund. He challenged Plessy v. Ferguson, which called for “separate but equal,” and argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court in 1952 and 1953. “Separate but equal” was finally overturned.

President Kennedy nominated Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Four years later, he was appointed solicitor general by President Johnson, and in 1967, he became the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court. Marshall was a proponent of judicial activism, determined to address remnants of Jim Crow. He served 24 years before retiring in 1991. After his death in 1993, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote, “Inscribed above the front entrance to this Court building are the words, ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’ Surely no individual did more to make these words a reality than Thurgood Marshall.”

Attorney Andrea James has been engaged with criminal justice issues since her days as a youth worker. She is the founder and executive director of Families for Justice as Healing, the founder of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, a 2015 Soros Justice Fellow, and the author of Upper Bunkies Unite: And Other Thoughts On the Politics of Mass Incarceration.

In 2009, James was sentenced to serve 24 months in federal prison and was stunned at what she encountered when she entered the prison system as an incarcerated person. She has subsequently used her experience to change the narrative and raise awareness about the effect of the incarceration of women on children and communities.

When Robert F. Kennedy voiced his approval for the Criminal Justice Act of 1964, he said he was taking a stand “to make our ideal of ‘equal justice under law’ a reality” for impoverished people throughout the country. By supporting the right to counsel for all, regardless of income, Kennedy held the U.S. criminal justice system to a higher standard of fairness. During his campaign, he would extend his criticisms to the death penalty, calling for an end to the widely accepted practice.

This lesson plan explores Robert F. Kennedy’s legacy of criminal justice reform in a time defined by the rise of the New Jim Crow, a term