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Northeastern faculty, Lebanese judiciary convene in Beirut to discuss alternatives to incarceration

From left to right: Jacob Stowell, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice; Tim Leshan, vice president of government relations at Northeastern; Jean Fahed, head of Lebanon's Higher Judicial Council; law professor Margaret Burnham; law professor Daniel Medwed; and Khushal Safi, associate director of international security at Northeastern.

A delegation of Northeastern faculty members traveled to Beirut in late September to help Lebanon’s Higher Judicial Council explore the possibility of using plea bargaining as a tool to alleviate the nation’s overcrowded prison system.

Three law and criminal justice scholars—Margaret Burnham, Daniel Medwed, and Jacob Stowell—participated in a two-day justice seminar there to discuss the ins and outs of the practice, whose roots date back several hundred years. The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs sponsored the seminar, which was attended by a score of prominent Lebanese judges, lawyers, and academics.

“It was a pleasure and a privilege to participate in the seminar,” said Medwed, a law professor and leading scholar in the field of wrongful convictions. “As an academic, I seek to blend theory and practice, and the possibility of being able to help implement some theories is very exciting.”

The seminar marked the second collaboration between Northeastern and the Higher Judicial Council—a partnership aimed at reforming the Lebanese judicial system. In September 2016, the university hosted a delegation of Lebanese judges who had the opportunity to experience the U.S. law in action through courtroom visits and meetings with prominent figures like Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who graduated from Northeastern in 1972.

“I was very impressed by the Lebanese delegation that came to Northeastern last year,” said Medwed. “They were open-minded, engaged, creative, and committed to justice.”

At this fall’s seminar, Northeastern worked closely with Higher Judicial Council President Jean Fahed, Minister of Justice Salim Jreissati, and Prosecutor General Samir Hammoud to design a program that would shed light on the pros and cons of plea bargaining.

The plea bargain—which ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative journalism organization, described as the “lifeblood of the overburdened criminal justice system”—is an arrangement between a prosecutor and a defendant in which the accused pleads guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a lighter sentence. The practice is commonly used in the U.S. to reduce case processing and prison overcrowding, but it would be new in Lebanon, where prison overcrowding is reported to be a major problem. According to a 2010 report by the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, Lebanese prisons are filled to nearly twice their capacity.

As part of the seminar, the Northeastern experts led two sessions on plea bargaining. The first session focused on the ins and outs of the practice, with a particular focus on what it is, how it works, and why it’s not always effective. The second session examined case studies of how the U.S., Italy, and other nations have instituted plea bargaining as well as best practices for incorporating the concept into judicial systems around the world.

“The audience was very receptive to the idea of learning more about plea bargaining, but we didn’t pretend to have all the answers,” said Medwed. “Any reform will have to be tailored to suit the Lebanese system and their legal culture.”