Criminal Justice in the Urban Environment

Criminal Justice in the Urban Environment

The is a key class for students in the criminal justice program at BMCC. Your college may offer a similar class. There is currently so matched class at John Jay, so this class counts as a criminal justice elective for students who transfer to John Jay College.

The course Criminal Justice in the Urban Environment has a broader focus than any of the other CRJ courses offered as part of the Community College CJA/CJA core requirements (Intro to Criminal Justice, Criminology, Policing, Corrections, and Criminal Law). At BMCC, CRJ majors choose between Criminal Law and Criminal Justice in the Urban Environment as electives in the CRJ sequence. CJUE satisfies the U.S. in Its Diversity Requirement upon transferring to John Jay College.
At the core, CJUE may be described as a combination of John Jay’s CJBA220 (Race, Gender, Ethnicity, Crime and Justice), and SOC201 (Urban Sociology). This course delves into the reflexive relationship between the social construction of race and ethnicity and contemporary problems related to the enforcement of the law and societal responses to crime within urban settings. One of the advantages of teaching an interdisciplinary course such as CJUE is that the instructor has the opportunity to embrace a variety of scholarly and pedagogical angles. There are semesters when I give the course content a heavier focus on juvenile delinquency in urban centers, for example; in others, I focus more on problems related to policing such as reactive versus preventive approaches to policing. I have also taught semesters with more attention on the intersections of social inequality and criminalization of urban communities.
One of the main goals for the course, as students get to their final semester at the community college and prepare to make the transition to John Jay College as third-year students, is to help them build critical thinking and analytical writing skills related to their discipline. CJUE should move beyond the memorization of facts and theories and encourage inferential analysis and thinking: –what are these facts really telling me? What are the implications of our social policies and perceptions of the “other”?. For this purpose, CJUE may be used as a capstone course at the community college level (which is how LaGuardia CC positions it), bringing together the main concepts and theories covered in previous courses and applying a critical lens to their study.

Experiential Learning Component:
As part of the goal of making CJUE a course that will prepare graduating students to effectively transition into John Jay’s writing-level expectations, CJUE should emphasize intensive reading and writing, carrying when available a WIC (Writing-Intensive Course) designation. One additional possibility is to incorporate into CJUE an experiential learning component; in my classes, all the students engage in original research, conducting survey and open-ended interviews within their own communities. In preparation for the project, students are required to obtain the online CITI Program Certificate in Human Subjects Research, which helps them understand some of the ethical concerns involved in protecting research participants’ well-being. Introducing research methods and allowing students to become social researchers throughout the semester builds on the students’ initial awareness of facts about their own communities (and how they compare with others), assuring a high level of student interest and engagement. This way, they see where their personal experiences as student researchers feeds into their still-developing ideas about what any educational program can do for them both as students and as citizens. This strategy has been effective in my courses, and some of the students have presented their work at John Jay College Student Showcase, as well as at the national academic conferences of Eastern Sociological Society and The Left Forum.

As an alternative to student-led research projects, other forms of experiential learning may include a visit to the courts or participation in the NYPD ride-along program.

Course Description and Learning Objectives: 
At BMCC, where I teach, the official description and class objectives are the following:
Course Description:  
This course takes a critical approach to the study of crime and justice in urban settings. Course materials examine contemporary crime-related issues that affect urban communities within a historical and sociological context. The course highlights the intersections of deviant behavior and the criminal justice system within the structures of class, race, gender, and power inequalities. Topics explored may include racial profiling, juvenile delinquency, media representations of crime, policing, the war on drugs, and prisoner re-entry.

Class Objectives:

  1. To give students an understanding of the special characteristics of urban settings that affect crime and justice.
  2. To develop an overall understanding of the current state of problems and solutions regarding crime in urban settings.
  3. To learn how current urban methods of criminal justice are supported by empirical evidence.
  4. To teach students the implications of today’s urban crime and justice as it relates to social policy.

Course Materials: 
There is ample flexibility when selecting materials for this course. I like to present various perspectives on the same overarching theme. For example, I may select books that illustrate the worldview presented by individuals that have been in contact with the criminal justice system; then one by legal scholars or federal prosecutors; and a third that illustrates tensions within the day-to-day workplace dynamics among law enforcement officers. Here are some books that I have used and found to be excellent resources for the students:

  1. Let’s Get Free: Hip Hop Theory of Justice, by Paul Butler (2010). The New Press; ISBN 978-1595585004.
  2. Cop in the Hood, by Peter Moskos, (2009); Princeton University Press; ISBN 978-0691143866.
  3. Stickup Kids, by Randol Contreras (2012); University of California Press; ISBN 9780520273382.
  4. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, by Victor Rios (2011); New York University Press; ISBN 978-0814776384.
  5. Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas; (1997); Vintage Publishers; ISBN 978-0679781424
  6. Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City, by Elijah Anderson (1999); W. W. Norton & Company, Reprint edition, ISBN: 978-0393320787. 

Due to the course’s emphasis on critical thinking, I suggest staying away from textbooks. Textbooks on the topic, usually marketed as “Multicultural Issues in Criminal Justice” or “Diversity in CRJ,” tend to be expensive and treat the subject at a superficial level. Students will sell a textbook back to the bookstore, but they will integrate the books listed above into their home library. 

For CJUE I like to use primary sources to the extent that is possible. This can include reading reports, classic scholarly articles, newspaper articles, and academic books. 

Course Assignments:

I require students to satisfy a series of “low-stakes” writing assignments, as well as a final “high-stakes” research paper. For low-stakes assignments I recommend weekly responses to the class Blackboard discussion board, either prompted by guiding questions presented by the professor or unstructured. Students should write before arriving to class, as one of the goals is to invite students to engage with ideas in preparation for the class meeting. Another form of low-stakes assignment is an oral presentation of the student’s work, such as a mock-panel presentation of the research findings in front of the class.

As a high-stakes assignment, the research paper is best broken down into various elements, or a scaffolded paper. This step-by-step approach helps demystify the writing process, presenting it as the sum of various elements in the paper (in this case: thesis statement; literature review; research findings; discussion and conclusion; bibliography).

After students have a final draft of their research paper, I have them do a peer-review exercise in class. I provide a rubric that asks peer reviewers to evaluate content (thesis, arguments, conclusions), as well as form (writing structure, grammar, syntax, citation style, etc.) At the end of the session, students take home their original paper, marked by the reviewers, and the review sheet with comments. When students submit their final papers, I asked them to write a cover letter explaining how they integrated the suggestions proposed by the peer reviewer. This exercise has proved to be effective in instilling self-critical skills among students, based on their feedback.

Here are the descriptions of assignments included in my syllabus:

Low-Stakes Written Assignments
Journal Entries (Blackboard Discussion Board) Due at 5pm the day before class. Late submissions will receive only partial credit.

Purpose: The purpose of the journal is to establish and maintain communication with the professor and your classmates in relation to reading assignments. This journal entry is based on the readings due for Wednesday (the entry is due on Tuesday; make sure to plan accordingly). Log content is flexible and provides the opportunity to voice any thoughts, feelings, observations, and impressions about the course, including the readings, exercises, class dynamics, projects, concepts, and even instructor. Journal writing is also an opportunity to reflect on particular interests and/or needs that may or may not be getting met in class. 

Please write one or two PARAGRAPHS addressing your reactions and thoughts about the readings and assignments that are due for that class, discussing the major conceptual points and your opinions on the material, the author, or any other focus you want to write about.

Some questions to consider when writing your journal entries: 
1. What was most significant about the readings? How do they relate to your personal or work life?
2. What was the connection, if any, between the readings topic and current and/or past life experiences?
3. Is there anything missing from the reading?
4. What were the major theoretical concepts in the text? What are your reactions to the theory?

(B) Term Research Paper: 
Instructions for completing the “Fear of Crime in My Neighborhood” Project

This assignment requires you to write a research paper of 2,000–2,500 words called “Crime and Drugs in My Neighborhood.” The primary research question that this study asks is: how have crime and drugs changed in my neighborhood over the last several years? To answer this question and write the paper, you will 1) collect background data about your neighborhood, and 2) combine it with original data that you will collect over the semester that is described in more detail below. The paper will be graded on how well you are able to collect and analyze the various types of data and assemble them into a coherent narrative about crime and drugs (or the lack of them) in your neighborhood.

Writing the Background to Your Neighborhood: Your paper will begin with an introduction that informs the reader about your neighborhood. To write the introduction, you will begin by collecting background or “secondary” data about your neighborhood, which will consist of information that you find by searching online, at a library, and/or elsewhere, and it will include statistics and/or reports published by government agencies such as the police, health department, or housing department. The background data may also include reports and statistics generated by non-governmental agencies (the Red Cross, for example) and any insightful articles that you can find about your neighborhood, including academic papers, magazine articles, newspaper stories, and so on. You may also make use of our survey findings from previous semesters that are available to you on Dropbox to help write a description of your neighborhood for the introduction. 

You will find 10 secondary sources of information and fill out a form on Survey Monkey for each source that describes this material. You will be responsible for turning in these forms as a hard copy and entering the data from each of them into an electronic database. Of course, all sources must be cited using APA format and added into a bibliography at the end of your final paper.

In-Depth Interviews: You will conduct 3 in-depth interviews, using the template provided on Dropbox, with people in your neighborhood regarding changes in crime and drug use over the last several years. You may interview anyone who lives or works in your neighborhood, including next-door neighbors, family members, postal workers, grocery store clerks, the gossipy old lady who looks out her window all day, the local beat cop, school crossing guards, local officials, and so on. The paper does not ask you to solicit the opinions of criminals, drug dealers, drug users, or strangers off the street, but rather people you know in your neighborhood who have an opinion about crime and drugs and are willing to share those opinions with you. Your task, then, is to listen to them and present their point of view to the reader.

For the final paper, the interviews should be written in a style that helps the reader understand who these people are and why they hold the opinions that they do. (Note: while you are free to interview anyone from your neighborhood, writing up findings from the qualitative interviews is often easier when the people that you interview do not all share the same opinions about crime and drugs.)

In writing about the people that you interview for your paper, you must use pseudonyms — that is, you may not use people's real names or describe them in such a way that anyone who reads your paper will be able to identify them. Of course, there are exceptions. For example, if you interview the captain of your local police precinct, it would be virtually impossible to disguise his or her identity. As such, you may use the real names of some public figures or officials, but otherwise use fake names.

The three interviews should also be written up so that they can be copied-and-pasted into the template that is provided on Dropbox. You will be responsible for turning in these filled templates before the end of the semester, and for copying-and-pasting that data into an electronic database.

Collecting the Survey DataYou will also administer an anonymous survey to 10 people in your neighborhood. Each survey consists of about 35 questions. You may recruit ANY 10 people who live in your neighborhood, but they must be adults (18 years old or above). We recommend that you administer the survey to people you know, including family members and neighbors. Because these surveys are anonymous, they will not collect any information that would allow someone else to identify these people by looking at their answers, such as their names, phone numbers, or addresses. The surveys must be completed in paper form and submitted to the professor on the day that the class meets to enter the data in an electronic database.

Preparing for Interviews and SurveysThe original data that you will collect for this project involves interviewing and conducting surveys with people in your neighborhood, and because of that, we need to be careful that their privacy is protected. A standard feature of all research that is done at colleges and universities across the country is to train researchers to protect the people that participate in their research. To ensure that the people who participate in our study are protected, as are you and the College, all students and faculty must complete an online course — the CITI program — that teaches us about protecting “human subjects.” You can access this web page here.  
You must complete this online course and submit the CITI certification of completion before you collect any interview or survey data.


You will do an in-class presentation on your primary research findings (“Fear of Crime in My Neighborhood”). Please bring an outline to class.

Evaluation & Course Requirements
The instructor may revise this grading pattern. Final grades may be determined as follows:

  1. Weekly journal entries (Blackboard discussion board, due Tuesday)     35%
  2. Paper outline, neighborhood description, and annotated bibliography (5 pages)        20%
  3. Final paper (including interpretation of quantitative and qualitative interviews)       35%
  4. Presentation: “Fear of Crime in My Neighborhood” 5%
  5. Participation 5% 

TOTAL: 100%

A    93% and above

A–    90–92%

B+  87–89%

B    83–86%

B–    80–82%

C+  77–79%

C    73–76%

C–    70–72%

D+  67–69%

D    63–66%

D–   60–61%

F Below 60%

Sample Schedule of Reading Assignments: 
Week 1           Wed:        Introduction to course; 
(1/28)               Description of final project (“Fear of Crime in My Neighborhood”)
Fri:    C.Wright Mills, Sociological Imagination (Ch. 1)
On Blackboard: Write two paragraphs about yourself (see course guide)

Week 2           Wed:        Paul Butler, Let’s Get Free (Ch. 1 + 2)
(2/4)                 Fri:         Butler (Ch. 3) 

Week 3           Wed:        No Safe Place Report, The Criminalization of Poverty
(2/11)               Fri:         “Sidewalk Life” (Jane Jacobs, Chapter from The Life and Death of Great American Cities)

Week 4           Wed:        No F2F Session this week! College Follows Monday Schedule
(2/18)               Fri:         Get CitiProgram Certificate in Human Subjects Research! (Basic Course: (Select Basic Course>Human Subjects Research. Institution is City University of New York, not BMCC) 
Week 5           Wed:        Butler (Ch. 5)
(2/25)                           Due: Neighborhood Background Description (500 words) 
Fri:        No Friday assignment this week! 
Week 6           Wed:        “Broken Windows” (The Atlantic)
(3/4)                 Fri:         “Social Structure and Anomie” (Robert Merton)           

Week 7           Wed:        Stickup Kids (Ch. 1, “The Rise of the South Bronx and Crack”)
(3/11)               Fri:         Stickup Kids (Ch. 2, “Crack”)
                        Due: Survey interviews (N=10; 500-word summary)

Week 8           Wed:        Cop in the Hood (Ch. 2, “Back to School, The Police Academy”)
(3/18)               Fri:         Cop in the Hood (Ch. 3, “New Jack, Learning to Do Drugs”)

Week 9           Wed:        “The Sneaky Thrill of Breaking the Law” (NYT)  + 
(3/25) Stickup Kids (Ch. 3, “Rikers Island, Normalizing Violence”)
Fri:    Due: In-depth interviews (N=3; 500 words each)

Week 10         Wed:        Stickup Kids (Ch. 4, “New York Boys”)
(4/2)                 Fri:         Stickup Kids (Ch. 5, “Crack is Dead”)
Week 11         (4/8)  No class: spring break
Week 12         Wed:        Cop in the Hood (Ch. 4, “The Corner”)
(4/15)               Fri:         Cop in the Hood (Ch. 5, “911 Is a Joke”)

Week 13         Wed:        Stickup Kids (Ch. 6, “The Girl” + Ch. 7, “Gettin’ the Shit”)
(4/22)               Fri:         Stickup Kids (Ch. 8, “Drug Robbery Torture”)

Week 13         Wed:        Stickup Kids (Ch. 9, “Splitting the Profits” + Ch. 10, “Living the Dream”)
(4/29)               Fri:         Please work on the first draft of your final paper

Week 14         Wed:        Cop in the Hood (Ch. 6, “Under Arrest” + Ch. 7, “Prohibition”). 
(5/6)                 First draft of final paper due!

Week 15         Wed:        Stickup Kids (Ch. 11, “Fallen Stars”); first day of student presentations
(5/13)               Fri:         Stickup Kids (Conclusion) + Cop in Hood (Epilogue and Policing Green)
Week 16         Wed:        Student presentations. Last meeting day. 
(5/20)               Fri:         Final draft of research paper due!

Below are the official Student and General Learning Outcomes and Means of Assessment for this course, as offered at BMCC:

II.        Student Learning Outcomes & Means of Assessment

Course Student Learning Outcomes (Students will be able to…)

Measurements (means of assessment for student learning outcomes listed in first column)


  1. Describe the special characteristics of urban settings that affect crime and justice.
  1. Discuss the implications of today’s urban crime and justice as it relates to social policy.


  1. Describe how current urban methods of criminal justice are supported by empirical evidence.
  1. Demonstrate an understanding of the current state of problems and solutions regarding crime in urban settings.


Standardized test items: will test a student’s ability to recall specific points of information regarding a. the special characteristics of urban settings that affect crime and justice;
b. the implications of today’s urban crime and justice as it relates to social policy; c. the  current urban methods of criminal justice are supported by empirical evidence; and d. an understanding of the current state of problems and solutions regarding crime in urban settings.

In-class writing assignmentThe in-class writing assignment (essay) will test a student’s ability to a. appraise a hypothetical situation; b. recall specific points of information regarding criminal justice in urban settings; and c. apply the appropriate points of information to formulate an appropriate response using the appropriate vocabulary. 

Oral presentationsThe case briefing/oral presentation will test a student’s ability to interpret and summarize the material presented in class lectures and reading assignments.

















General Education Outcomes & Means of Assessment
Below are the college’s general education goals that will be covered and assessed in this course. 

General Education Goals

Measurements (means of assessment for general education goals listed in first column)


Communication Skills: Students will write, read, listen, and speak critically and effectively.

Take-home written assignments: To successfully prepare for a standardized test, students must have the ability to read and comprehend the written course materials presented in the textbook, on the blackboard, and in handouts.  To prepare successfully for a standardized test, students must actively listen in class and take notes.

In-class writing assignment: To successfully complete the in-class writing assignment, students must express ideas clearly in written form.

 Oral presentations: To successfully complete the case brief/oral presentation, students must express ideas clearly in oral form.


Information & Technology Literacy: Students will collect, evaluate, and interpret information and effectively use information technologies.


Oral presentations: Direct evidence of a student’s ability to make effective use of technology and conduct research using appropriate strategies will be the presentation of the source case with the brief from the correct source.


















by Yolanda Martin