Exploring crime in the USA: a study trip of a lifetime

For our Criminology students, a highlight of their time in Derby is the chance to visit America on a week-long study trip. The second-year students get to see first-hand how the American criminal justice system works. Student Danielle Poulter, now in her final year, tells us about her experience, meeting inmates in jail and sitting in on a murder trial.

First stop – Miami Dade College Police Academy

There is such a sense of pride in becoming a Police officer in Miami. They become a unit, a family and, most importantly, friends. After visiting the Miami Dade College Police Academy, it was clear from the sheer size of the facilities that there is a continuous need for new officers in the state. Seven campuses, 100,000 students, and six months of training are needed to qualify into the force.

Like the UK, training involves physical tests and classroom teaching. The biggest difference between the two countries are the tests officers must undertake to determine their reliability. Before completing training successfully, all officers must pass polygraph tests. These are designed to test their integrity and ability to be impartial in a variety of situations.

Students standing in front of the Miami Dade College sign

Jail or prison?

Another day in Miami took us to Tuilford Guildford Knight (TGK) jail. Correction Officer Smith led the day, giving an overview of the differences between jails and prisons. In the US, a jail is a centre that houses inmates serving a sentence of less than one year and people awaiting trial. In a jailhouse, there can be a range of people who have committed many crimes, from theft to first-degree murder whereas a prison houses those who have been sentenced to serve a year or more.

TGK jail was certainly an eye-opening experience for us. Officer Smith explained the process all inmates go through from entering the jail and also allowed some time for us to be in the presence of inmates.

Jail inmates are housed on a classification basis, based on their crime. There are three classifications: detox, juvenile, and serious crime. Depending on the classification of crime, this determines the level of communication and independence they have. Within the UK, there are different category prisons to house different levels of crime. In the US, the one facility houses all types of crimes but prisoners are treated accordingly.  

Police vs public defenders

On a visit to the public defender’s office, we met Carlos J Martinez, a current serving public defender in the city of Miami. He explained what their roles are as state attorneys who are assigned to people by courts who cannot afford legal aid.

A public defender is someone who is elected by the public and also takes on political responsibility as well as judicial when appointed. Mr Martinez placed a huge emphasis on his work on the injustices faced by certain minorities within Miami. He discussed his personal views and experiences of past corruption within the police and how they do not always follow legislation in order to get a conviction, which has seen several cases unfairly sentenced.

After questions on capital punishment, it was clear that the majority of people within the office believed that the death penalty within the state was too widely used and other forms of rehabilitation should be used to punish offenders.

History of ethnic officers

Another visit took us to the historic, black police precinct courthouse and museum. We were greeted by one of the first black police officers in Miami who was serving as a tour guide to the facility. Miami was the first southern city in the US to have black police officers. However, they were still segregated from the white officer population, which resulted in this facility being built in 1949. It was the only precinct that served as both a jail and courthouse.

The purpose of the museum is to preserve and display artefacts to demonstrate the progression of black individuals within the police and justice system. We learned there was a 60% decrease in crime rates after the introduction of this department. It became clear that having diversity within criminal justice enforcement makes them more relatable and results in more positive outcomes.

Police officer standing in front of students at the courthouse museum
Students at the police precinct and courthouse museum

Experiencing real-life crime

Visiting Miami Dade County Courthouse gave us the chance to experience where trials within the city take place. The largest courtroom was the one for high profile cases. It was where the infamous serial killer Ted Bundy was put on trial. Speaking with a correctional officer, police sergeant and judge in this courtroom, we were able to fully understand the different roles people play during a trial. There was also a chance to observe part of an ongoing trial for first-degree murder. This really put into perspective how crime can be committed in the worst form and taught us the US laws of disclosure between prosecution and defence.  

For the thrill of the ride

On our final day, we had the opportunity to visit the Miami Harbour Patrol Unit, who oversee crime from the water. We received an overview as to how crime is managed within the unit in a city that is so accessible by water. Marine officers demonstrated the impressive speed of the boats – and the sounds that the boats can make through sirens. Having the opportunity to be on some of the fastest boats in the world in such a beautiful city really made such a great week that even more exciting.

The trip really is a great way for students to experience different cultures and justice systems, and bring a new way of thinking back to your final year. You can also use this opportunity to help stand out in in the graduate job market.

People being taken out on a boat with a marine officer
Students enjoying a boat trip with a marine officer


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