Criminal Law Scholar Bowers to Join Law Faculty

May 19, 2008

Josh Bowers, a legal scholar and former defense attorney who specializes in innovative examination of the real-world application of criminal law, will join the Law School this fall.

Josh Bowers

Bowers is currently a Bigelow Teaching Fellow and lecturer of law at the University of Chicago Law School. Prior to that, he spent three years as a staff attorney with The Bronx Defenders, and also was an associate at Morvillo, Abramowitz, Grand, Iason & Silberberg, a white-collar criminal defense firm in New York City.

He's published articles on the effectiveness of drug courts, the intersection of plea bargaining and innocence, and the use of low-ball plea offers as a prosecutorial tool to mute communal resistance to unpopular police policies.

"Josh is already off to an impressive start as a criminal procedure scholar," said Professor Darryl Brown. "I think our students will really benefit from Josh's years as a criminal defense attorney, and he helps us achieve a nice balance on the criminal law faculty between those with government experience versus defense experience, and state practice versus federal practice experience."

An undercurrent in all of his research so far is the idea that enforcement of high-stakes cases - such as high-profile felonies - is "something of a different animal" than enforcement of low-stakes cases, which are typically misdemeanors, Bowers said.

As an example, he pointed to the ways in which prosecutors negotiate plea bargains. The conventional perspective is that the prosecutor takes on the role of a "wealth maximizer" who seeks the longest sentence on the highest charge when negotiating a plea agreement, he said.

"But that's only half right," Bowers said. "Prosecutors are always conviction maximizers - that's the easiest measure of their job success - but when it comes to low-stakes cases, it's not clear at all that they are sentence maximizers."

Brown said Bowers' research on the subject has already affected the way he teaches criminal adjudication at the Law School.

"It's a great example of a scholar drawing some terrific insights from his immersion in practice and yet thinking outside the box of the daily practice experience," Brown said.

In a UCLA Law Review article published in April, Bowers analyzed the effectiveness of drug court programs, which are intended to serve as an alternative to incarceration for drug offenders. Participants in such programs ostensibly avoid conventional sentencing by enrolling in mandatory treatment programs.

"My premise is that drug courts provide particularly poor results for the very defendants that they are intended to help most," Bowers said. "Specifically, the most likely participants to graduate are volitional drug users, who strategically game exit from undesired conventional punishment and game entry into treatment that they do not need. By contrast, the most likely treatment failures are genuine addicts and members of historically disadvantaged groups, who thereafter receive harsh termination sentences that often outstrip conventional plea prices."

A New York University Law School graduate, Bowers clerked for Judge Dennis Jacobs of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He has also taught legal writing as an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School.

The Washington, D.C., native said he learned of his opportunity to join the Law School faculty at the end of a long job search during which he weighed the pros and cons of several other options.

"I felt exceptionally lucky to get the job at UVA. It was truly the perfect school for me along all dimensions. The faculty is phenomenal, the students are bright and congenial, and the town cannot be beat," Bowers said.

He'll teach first-year criminal law in the fall, and in the spring hopes to teach criminal procedure and a seminar on plea bargaining.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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