Last fall I spent two weeks at Masaryk University Law School in Brno, Czech Republic, teaching a course called U.S. Crime Victim Rights. During my stay I interacted with many Czech students and legal practitioners, and found among them a surprising appreciation for our unique American justice system.
Other California lawyers had previously taught at Masaryk, some of whom were full-time law professors. I contacted university officials and asked if they'd want the real world perspective of a prosecutor talking about crime victim rights, and they said yes. The topic is near to my heart, since I serve as the California Attorney General's state coordinator for Proposition 9, known as Marsy's Law (enumerating constitutional rights for crime victims); a coordinator for civil commitments under the Sexually Violent Predator Act; and as our San Diego office liaison on issues of human trafficking.
Masaryk is committed to offering its students a global and internationally focused education, and on paper I seemed qualified to contribute to that mission. I'd been an adjunct professor at California Western School of Law for more than ten years, and I lecture often for the California District Attorneys Association. But those were all U.S. audiences. Now, I would teach a course in a former Soviet Bloc country that does not use juries but gives judges almost full control of trials - a place that does not criminalize drug use or even the possession of child pornography.
All 40 of my students spoke English and were excited to have an American prosecutor address their perceptions of U.S. justice, as gleaned from television and movies. After the first lecture, in which I outlined our criminal justice system and constitutional rights, one student asked, "Is your constitution merely a worthless piece of paper if your secret NSA court spies on your citizens, and your government eavesdrops on other foreign dignitaries?" The question took me aback because I had heard Czech students are typically reserved in the classroom. However, I had made it clear that I would welcome pointed queries.
In my answer, I included perspectives that addressed the constitutional tension between individual liberties and the government's responsibility to protect its citizens. The Czech teaching assistant I was assigned - a criminal defense lawyer named Jan Provaznik - later remarked that my response surprised the students. They expected a jingoistic American who would proudly and stubbornly defend everything about our legal system, refusing to accept criticism or address any possible reform. This free exchange of opinion was a welcome experience for them, and it opened the door for further uninhibited discussions about everything from tort reform, to access to justice, to marriage equality.
Provaznik also told me the Czech Republic is becoming more receptive to revising its criminal codes, and is borrowing heavily from the United States in the process. In the Czech system, unless a victim cooperates fully, there is rarely an arrest or prosecution and the case is simply closed. In the U.S. we address problems common to elder abuse and sexual assault cases - such as a victim's inability to remember details (due to age, trauma, or the involvement of medication or alcohol), and various other reasons a victim might not cooperate.
Our system is one where first responders, medical personnel, prosecutors, and victim advocates can educate each other, share information, and work together to understand victims' psychic and other issues, and ultimately to hold criminals accountable. Provaznik told me he hoped that these approaches to criminal legal issues will become standard chapters in Czech law books and manuals, to better address these problem areas in his country.
My goal in Brno was to represent American criminal justice exactly as I see it - as a system with many positive aspects and many failings, about which we can talk openly and debate freely. In the end, I felt my students learned a tremendous amount - and more important, they learned that lawyers can be instrumental in changing the culture around the rights of crime victims.
Brad Weinreb is a deputy attorney general for California in San Diego and a board member of The Dreyfuss Initiative, which encourages children to study civics and the constitution.