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Criminal Justice Course Addresses Rising Latino Population University News
By: Sara Hoover

If hola and cómo estás are the extent of your Spanish knowledge, a new class at the U of M may not be for you. The Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice is offering a unique course this semester that gives context, as well as practice, to learning another language.

Jose Leon and Dr. Wayne Pitts
Jose Leon (left) and Dr. Wayne Pitts
“Latinos and the Criminal Justice System” is an upper-level class for undergraduate and graduate students conducted in both English and Spanish. Dr. Wayne Pitts, assistant professor of criminal justice in the College of Arts & Sciences, co-teaches the class with Jose Leon, Hispanic liaison for the Shelby County District Attorney General’s Office.

They believe this is the University’s first class to be taught in another language outside of the foreign languages and literatures department.

“Students need contextualized learning. We have to create a situation where they see the relevance of learning a foreign language,” said Pitts. “This goes beyond vocabulary lists. We need them to be able to ask people meaningful questions when they are in the course of their daily jobs. This is where many of them will encounter those people in the streets and will require more in-depth knowledge of the Spanish language. They need to be able to communicate.”

The class prerequisite is Spanish 1020, a basic skills level course.

Pitts came up with the idea after living in Mexico and working for Child Protective Services in rural North Carolina, where he maintained a full-time caseload of only Spanish-speaking clients.

“We have really seen a huge influx of Latinos into nontraditional migrant areas. North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas have been bombarded with huge numbers of people that don’t speak English. What that has done is put a huge strain on social service agencies, courts, hospitals, police agencies and so on.”

When Pitts moved to Memphis in 2004, he noticed a “lack of people able to address the unique needs of the Spanish-speaking population.”

Since criminal justice students already have a foreign language requirement, Pitts thought a bilingual class would be a good opportunity to give students a “criminal justice context with a Spanish focus.”

Three graduate and 48 undergraduate students are enrolled.

The assignments utilize the students’ language skills inside and outside of the classroom. One task required them to go into the Latino community and visit restaurants and businesses while speaking only Spanish.

“It opened their eyes to see a community that heretofore has been invisible to them,” said Pitts. “We gave them an assignment so specific that it forced them to use the language. It wasn’t like ‘try tacos at a certain place.’ We had to negotiate how to get in the back and take a picture of the tortilla machine. Not buy a pack of tortillas but obtain one tortilla. It forced them to go into the community and begin to look around at the context of which Latinos live in Memphis.”

Students also watched foreign films to observe how Latinos are portrayed in popular media. They researched the legal system of Central and South American countries to understand why Latinos may respond to American police, courts or corrections in a certain way.

In addition, guest speakers are interviewed in Spanish.

“We have brought in guests from different Spanish speaking countries, and all of them speak in different ways,” said Leon. “So, it is very good for (students) to be exposed to possibly different phrases, different common expressions. It opens up their knowledge.”

Junior criminal justice major Adam Pike plans on becoming a lawyer after a stint as a police officer.

“Since I am going into law enforcement, it would be kind of interesting to get the perspective of Latinos and Hispanics when they deal with the criminal justice system before I actually have to experience it,” he said.

The course has helped Pike empathize more with struggles that can arise because of language barriers.

“Quite a bit of the class is in Spanish. Guest speakers speak in Spanish and we have to write notes down as best as we can. For the most part we understand what’s going on and if we need help, they will help us out,” said Pike. “It also helps you understand how it is from (the Latino) perspective as well. A lot of them come over here and they don’t speak English. They are just kind of thrown into classrooms and they have to understand it. So it has helped me view how the world is to them.”

Guest speakers have been police officers, sheriff’s deputies, probation officers, interpreters, border patrol, corrections officers and judges, including criminal court Judge Mark Ward, a U of M alumnus who has bachelor’s, master’s and law degrees.

“They have all told us what it is like and how bad they need people that can actually speak Spanish because they are having to deal with them every day,” said Pike.

For example, there are only 12 Spanish-speaking police in the Memphis Police Department.

Leon concurs with the under-representation of bilingual speakers in the area’s legal system: “Not enough, not nearly enough. You need a billion people here.”

As co-teacher of the class, Leon hopes the students will gain perspective besides improved language skills.

“It definitely has brought the students closer to the reality of the criminal justice system. It is going to be a very scary place for English-speaking people. It’s been brought to their attention that it could be even scarier for people who don’t understand the language, so it has brought them in touch with the criminal justice system that we all work and see everyday.”

For freshman Rosa Valdez, a criminal justice major, the class exceeded her expectations.

“This goes far beyond what I expected. I expected a little less because so many people are not aware of the Latino community. So far, it has been great. We have gotten lots of opportunities to get out into the community and learn more about the Latino. I come from Chattanooga and so not only did it help me become more aware of the Latino population in Memphis, it got me more acquainted with the city itself.”

Valdez, who is bilingual, plans to work for the U.S. Border Patrol’s Immigration & Customs Enforcement. She sees the benefit beyond career mobility.

“Being bilingual opens a lot more doors for you, but it also gives you an opportunity to help your own kind especially with the language barriers and stuff like that. It just makes you a better-rounded person.”

Although there hasn’t been an official decision, Pitts expects the course will be offered once every couple of years, depending on demand and curriculum needs.

To watch a video on the bilingual class, visit

More About Bilingual Learning:

Video: Latinos and the Criminal Justice System

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Last Updated: 12/21/12