March 01, 2018

Changing Law’s Mind

By Deborah W. Denno

I’ve always been interested in why people commit crimes and the most humanitarian and effective ways to stop them. This interest stems from my long-held belief that society can only improve—a belief fueled by my baby-boomer world of vast social and cultural transformations, but one that I fear may seem naïve to the generation of women currently coming of age. Yet I remain firm in my conviction that positive change is always possible. And while my story is not a dramatic one, I’d like to share some experiences that support my optimistic perspective.

Professionally, my years in practice and research have led me to believe that changing the criminal law to reflect advances in mental health, medicine, and science can help ensure a fairer and more effective criminal justice system while making society safer. My forthcoming book holds the same title as this article—Changing Law’s Mind—and this phrase is also how I would describe the primary goal of my career.

Personally, as a woman whose education and career began at a time when ideas of gender equality were still just taking shape, I draw strength from my firsthand awareness of the progress that has occurred in this realm, even as it’s clear that much work has yet to be done. Ironically, my higher education began as the result of changes brought about by the law—in 1970, I was in the first class of women admitted to the University of Virginia (UVA), a state-funded yet all-male institution that had to be sued before allowing women to enroll. Despite this inauspicious beginning, my experience at UVA was one in which male and female students were treated equally. Moreover, my years at UVA taught me the value of being surrounded and inspired by bright, motivated people. Before I began college, I had no particular plans for my life or career. There, I was among classmates who seemingly thought about little else. Their sense of direction had a profound effect on me, unearthing a latent but boundless sense of ambition.

Prior to attending UVA, I’d grown up in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, where I saw the roots of what was so sorely wrong with this country—racial and gender disparities, great poverty, and the scars of the Vietnam War. At UVA, I became particularly interested in how these issues affected criminal behavior. By graduation, I wanted to be a criminologist, researching the causes of crime and potential solutions. The next year I would complete a master’s in criminology and then become a research associate at a law school to work on a nationwide study of plea bargaining. Both experiences were thrilling and convinced me that I could do more.

However, as my education continued and my career began, I struggled with the ramifications on my personal life. Much attention is given today to the challenges that women face in balancing work and home obligations, but the need for such balance was preceded by the need to assert the right to work at all. My parents, like many of their generation, simply assumed that I would “marry well” and be taken care of by a spouse. Instead, I was completing a PhD in criminology/sociology and also co-directing what was then one of the largest studies in the country of biological and sociological predictors of crime and violence. Thereafter, I got my JD and, after a brief time as a law firm associate, clerked for a judge and finally became a professor of law. For my generation of women, this was an uncharted path. I, along with my family, had to adjust my expectations for my life.

It’s a path that I feel incredibly lucky to have traveled, and my ability to do so gives me hope that continued progress awaits future generations of women. More than any other experience, though, my last 26 years as a law professor have served to fuel my optimism about the potential for positive change. It has been my privilege to interact with countless numbers of students whose intelligence and ambition give me enormous hope for the future of gender equality, as well as the myriad other areas of modern society that are ripe for improvement.

By Deborah W. Denno

Deborah W. Denno is the Arthur A. McGivney Professor of Law and Founding Director of the Neuroscience and Law Center at Fordham University School of Law.