The Call of California

Leslie Ridgeway • October 10, 2022
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Professor Mugambi Jouet returns to Los Angeles at pivotal time for criminal justice research and reform 

For Professor Mugambi Jouet, joining the USC Gould School of Law is a kind of homecoming after traveling, working and studying the history and application of criminal justice around the world.
Jouet, associate professor of law, vacationed frequently in Los Angeles as a child to visit his father and is returning at a pivotal moment for criminal justice research and reform, at a time when the Supreme Court of the United States seems less favorable to the rights of the incarcerated, leaving state and local governments with opportunities to create change.
“California and the other 49 states are big laboratories for criminal justice,” he says. “Many debates are taking place in California about subjects such as penal reform and the abolition of capital punishment. Some experts believe that, in the coming years and decades, much of the change will have to come at the state and local levels. It’s exciting to be in California at present.”
Jouet’s research and teaching focus on the historical evolution of mass incarceration, the death penalty and juvenile justice, as well as the changing face of American exceptionalism in an age of polarization between conservatives and liberals. In 2017, Jouet published the book “Exceptional America: What Divides Americans from the World and from Each Other” (University of California Press).
“My research explores how peculiar American justice is comparatively, why America has the highest incarceration rate worldwide, and why it is the only Western democracy to retain capital punishment, even though it once was a trailblazer in introducing humanistic and rehabilitative sentencing principles,” Jouet explained. “There are numerous areas in which American society is distinctive – historically, culturally, racially, politically, and legally. Today criminal justice is a microcosm of American exceptionalism in the original sense that America is an exception.”
His global background includes a PhD in law summa cum laude from Université Paris 1,Panthéon-Sorbonne, JD cum laude from the Northwestern University School of Law, an MPA in policy analysis from New York University and a bachelor’s degree in history from Rice University. His academic and professional experience include an assistant professorship at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, a Grey Fellowship at Stanford Law School, teaching a clinical course at Sciences Po in Paris, clerking at a U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, and working as a public defender in Manhattan and The Bronx. He especially draws upon his experience in indigent defense when teaching criminal justice.
“I enjoy having students contribute their insights to the classroom, and I learn a lot from them,” he noted. His students not only read cases but learn how they are argued by analyzing appellate briefs and oral arguments. Students then have a chance to apply these skills by arguing simulated cases that Jouet designs. “My teaching is multifaceted as I draw upon a host of sources, ranging from traditional ones to litigation materials, documentaries and occasionally art. Novels and music can illustratively capture key social questions and historical periods. John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama,’ for instance, can partly be understood as a reflection on criminal justice.”
Jouet’s research has been published or is forthcoming in numerous journals and law reviews, including the American Journal of Comparative Law, American Journal of Criminal Law and the American Journal of Legal History, which recently awarded him the 2022 Alfred L. Brophy Prize for “Revolutionary Criminal Punishments: Treason, Mercy, and the American Revolution” (2021) for the most significant annual contribution in U.S. legal history.

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