Lisa Kerr (LL.M. ’09, J.S.D. ’13) is among 15 recipients of a 2012 Trudeau Foundation Scholarship, the most prestigious doctoral award of its kind in Canada. Awardees, who receive a $60,000 grant for each of the three years of the scholarship, represent the best and brightest social sciences and humanities doctoral students doing innovative research on issues critical to Canadians. Trudeau Scholars also interact with leaders in Canadian academia and society one-on-one, through public policy networks, and at public forums hosted by the Trudeau Foundation.
In her doctoral research, Kerr is rethinking current approaches to incarceration and justice, focusing on how much control courts and legislatures actually exert over post-conviction punishment. Kerr suggested that legal theorists and judges focus on questions of the appropriate length of confinement without giving adequate attention to the actual nature of individuals’ prison experiences, which, she said, vary significantly across and within national prison systems.
“We see in our cultural language that we think certain things are included in going to prison,” said Kerr. “We joke about prison rape. We imagine solitary confinement. At other times we criticize ‘country club prisons.’ We have these ideas that prisons are awful, or sometimes they’re too good. What I ask is, how does the legal system imagine the prison, what does the judge consigning an individual to prison expect in terms of the actual administration of the sanction? And, what legal concepts and techniques work to control the actual quality of the sanction?” Extra-legal factors and individual vulnerabilities, she said, often influence greatly the realities of punishment after a sentence is handed down.
The field of sentencing and punishment theory, Kerr added, asks when punishment is justified, but the actual nature and features of imprisonment remain largely unexamined. “In those exchanges, few theorists debate what kinds or modes of imprisonment are legitimate. They use a notion of ‘hard treatment’ as a placeholder concept; they tend not to unpack and define. But if you want to ask if something is legitimate, you need to know what that something is or ever could be. To ask about the legitimacy of imprisonment, we must ask about the capacity and limitations of actual prison systems.”
Kerr’s doctoral research proposal grew out of her experience as a staff lawyer at Prisoners’ Legal Services in Vancouver, where she pursued human rights litigation on behalf of prisoners such as transgender inmates with medical needs, Aboriginal people who wanted to practice their spirituality, and mentally ill inmates whose illness-driven behavior led to frequent disciplinary sanctions. After graduating from the University of British Columbia Faculty of Law, Kerr clerked at the British Columbia Court of Appeal before practicing as a litigation associate at the firm Fasken Martineau. In addition to her other activities, Kerr is working with the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association on constitutional litigation related to the use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons, and with Pivot Legal Society to decriminalize sex work; a case on the latter issue is currently pending before the Supreme Court of Canada. She is also a doctoral fellow of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
While earning her LL.M. at NYU Law, Kerr worked as a research assistant to David Garland, Arthur T. Vanderbilt Professor of Law, on Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition, his prize-winning book. “Lisa Kerr is an outstanding young academic whose talents, experience, and research project make her perfectly suited to be a Trudeau Scholar,” said Garland, who is Kerr’s doctoral supervisor. “I know from seeing her in seminars that she loves to engage with other scholars and does so with energy, flair, and effectiveness, building on the insights of others and helping shape dialogue in a constructive direction. I also know that she is committed to public service and to engaging issues in the public domain.
“The subject of her dissertation—the legal regulation of life inside prisons—is now an urgent problem, given the growth in prison populations and the deteriorating conditions of confinement in a post-rehabilitative era. Lisa is on her way to producing a dissertation of the first importance that will bridge the gap between the academic and the practitioner worlds and open up the possibility of serious reform in this important area.”
Posted on May 29, 2012