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"The justice system of the United States is more practical than it is here"
Professor Peter Johnstone, expert in criminal law at the University of North Texas, visited the UAB to offer a seminar on the United States' criminal justice system, in which he explained that justice is based on negotiating and reaching agreements on criminal acts, before having to go to trial.
"We need professionals in Law and Criminology with an international perspective, in this globalised world. An exchange allows you to discover a different culture, opens your mind and makes you more flexible; that is essential for a future lawyer or judge."
Professor Johnstone has lived in Texas since 2001, but was born in London. He was offered the chance to teach in the US 17 years ago, after years of teaching in British universities, and finally decided to stay in the US. He has published 17 books and is the coordinator of an exchange programme beginning this year in which law students from the UAB and from the University of North Texas participate.
-How do you feel living in the US? What made you move from London to Texas?
-I like it. The United States is a country full of possibilities. I taught at the University of Law in London and there was no department of criminal justice, while this department does exist in the United States. It was a new experience, a new area for me which allowed me to learn a great deal. I teach criminal law, but my passion focuses on the history of law.
-What will the law students participating in this academic exchange with the University of North Texas learn?
I think they can learn about a completely different legal system. Here in Spain and in the majority of Europem the legal system is very similar in all countries. There, the emphasis put on how the investigation is done and how it is tried is very different.
They will also be able to discover and delve deeper into a totally different culture. What is most important about this exchange, in my opinion, is to come into contact with and learn about such a different culture. Texas is a very large state and the people there are not used to travelling. But it is important for them not to be isolated and to discover other realities and cultures.
-Is that important for a future lawyer or judge?
-Of course! It is important for any human being to be able to discover the world. And also for lawyers and judges. We need professionals in law and crimilogy who have an international persepctive, in this globalised world. As a professor, the most important part of a student participating in an exchange programme is not so much to acquire skills in their area of knowledge, but to immerse themselves in a different culture.
That helps us be more tolerant, more flexible and open-minded. And that goes for future judges and lawyers, living in today's globalised and international world. We work with lawyers and judges from other countries and with other cultures.
-Is it necessary to be open-minded and flexible to be a good judge or lawyer?
-Yes, of course, it is a must. And they must be able to see that maybe parts of other legal systems in other countries can be incorporated into their system.
-What are the main differences between the crininal system in the US and in Europe?
-In the US, I believe the system was createdafter considering many of the economic aspects needed to try criminals. A lot of resources and money is needed, so that is why alternatives are proposed, such as negotiations and pacts. It is a question of practicality and efficiency. If you arrest 100 people per day there is no way you can judge them all, it is not practical or efficient, and it is also very expensive (searching for witnesses, lawyers, judges, etc.).
We cannot take to court every petty crime. Today in the US 90% of crimes are solved through negotiations; if the person charged pleads guilty, there is no need for a trial, and the sentence can be reduced thanks to them pleading guilty. This is becoming more frequent in Europe as well, but not to the extent of what happens in the US.
-Texas is one of the states in which the death penalty is still legal. What is your opinion on that?
-I wasn't born in the United States, but I chose to live there. And if you choose to live somewhere, then you should respect their laws. Thirty-one of the US states have capital punishment, even if it is only really applied in six or seven, and Texas is one of them. There are executions on a regular basis in Texas.
-How does that make you feel, as a professor of criminal law?
-I respect it, otherwise I would have chosen to live in another state. It is what the citizens of Texas chose when they voted. I understand their motives for historic reasons. California, considered to be a liberal state, abolished the death penalty years ago, but recently celebrated a referendum and will reintroduce it.
-Seen from a European perspective, a country with a death penalty is seen as backwards and negative.
-Well, I repeat that the historic reasons must be understood. In the same way many people outside the US find the legal possession of firearms to be a scandal. They consider it to be terrible. But I am not bothered by it, because I do not see guns on the street. They have them because they feel safer and more comfortable with them, and there that is a natural and normal thing. When you understand the story behind it, you understand why they carry guns. You must know haow they got to where they are, and the specific underlying issues.
-You find it positive? It is not a step backwards?
-You see, it must be respected. For some people, Brexit may be a step backwards, but for the people who voted in favour, who were the majority, it is clearly not backwards.
-After a year with Trump as president, has the criminal justice system been affected in any way?
-There have been no relevant changes. Only in the area of immigration have there been changes or proposals, due to the immigration policy.
-What are the values of Americans, and Texans in specific, that make them consider the possession of arms and the death penalty a good thing?
-Americans accept having weapons for a geographical and historic reason: it is a wild land, with dangerous animals and large extensions, which has made them always carry weapons. Even if you live in a large city, you can be on the outskirts in 15 minutes, in an area with wild animals. And they must always protect themselves.
But that doesn't affect you, naturally. Personally, I have never felt bad about it. People respect it. Many of my students come to campus carrying guns, they carry them discreetly under their clothes and I have never felt intimidated by it. You speak with them and you can see the gun tucked into their sock or on the inside of their jacket, but it is not intimidating.