Last Tuesday, guest speaker W. David Ball, an associate professor at Santa Clara University Law School who teaches in the areas of criminal law, criminal procedure, sentencing, and corrections, spoke to Nueva eighth graders in conjunction with their study of A Lesson Before Dying, a novel by Ernest Gaines. David possesses an extensive background in prisons, reentry, and criminal justice operations, and in November of 2016 he participated in the White House Convening on Criminal Justice Reform. He spoke to Nueva students for an hour about the challenges and possibilities of reform in the criminal justice system.
Ernest Gaines’ novel chronicles the unfair persecution and eventual execution of a young black man in 1940s Louisiana. According to eighth grade writing teacher Jennifer Perry, “Careful use of vivid imagery and implied comparison allows Gaines to show that not much had changed for the poor blacks in this community since the antebellum days. The opportunity arose to bring in an expert on the current state of criminal justice reform in the United States, and it seemed the perfect enrichment to bring us into the present.”
From the outset, David was immediately excited about speaking with our students, and was keen to tailor his speech to their interests, offering about 15 possible topics. Jennifer polled students and provided the most popular topics to David. Additionally, to prepare for the presentation, students dove into the details: they practiced visual literacy skills by analyzing data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (1997), watched a TED Talk by Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of Equal Justice Initiative, and read and responded to two different blog posts from samefacts.com, where David Ball regularly contributes.
David focused his talk on subjects selected by students: racial injustice and the death penalty, children and the criminal justice system (both as juveniles in the system and as children of the incarcerated), criminal justice reform in the Trump era, and the very low percentages of arrests that actually get tried (about 5%). David devoted the second half hour to answering student questions. Having done so much preparation for the talk, students were readied with numerous insightful and thoughtful questions on topics such as racial profiling, recidivism, prison guard unions, private vs. public prisons, school to prison pipeline, and more.
The depth of understanding David shared on these topics made it clear that the visions of our criminal justice system students see on television do not come close to the truth. The real facts can be truly daunting. Jennifer said, “After their study of literature in writing class and their pre-talk preparation, our eighth graders were able to listen to David’s observations with an astuteness and maturity beyond their years. It was clear from our classroom debrief after David’s talk that students appreciated his unique insight into the complexities of our system.”
Not at all disheartened by the harsh reality of many of his facts and statistics, David ended his talk with a call to action and encouragement. “If, in your future, this is something that interests you, get involved. There’s lots of work to do. I am optimistic — there are very serious problems in the world, but it is easy to sleep at night if you are working on things that you care about,” he said.
February 10, 2017