A broad perspective on questions of law

man smiling, standing in front of bookshelves.

As he prepares for the spring semester of this academic year, when he’ll begin teaching in the law school’s undergraduate program in law, Dr. Joshua Coene is ready to take on a full range of classrooms.

He’ll teach a survey course in Common Law, a core class that he expects to draw a lecture hall full of students. And he’ll offer a much smaller class on Law, Politics and Mass Incarceration, a seminar he’s developing that draws on his interest and research in the fraught issue of how societies punish and rehabilitate offenders.

Coene, a native of Pittsburgh, earned his own undergraduate degree with a triple major—in anthropology, history and political science—at the University of Pittsburgh, before moving on to the University of Michigan, where he received a master’s and doctoral degree in a joint program in anthropology and history. “I read a lot of the anthropology of law and also the history of various forms of law, not just in the United States but quite broadly,” he says.

He took that training with him to Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto, where he earned his JD degree. “I wanted to do more work with the community and more policy-relevant work, and a law degree is certainly a good way to do that,” he says.

At Osgoode Hall, Coene worked with the Western New York Immigration Assistance Center, advising area lawyers who were providing pro bono service. Their clients faced criminal law charges and usually had an immigration status that complicated their cases. “We wanted to make sure that defense lawyers didn’t agree to a plea deal that might make sense for a citizen but could get somebody deported,” he says.

Prior to joining the faculty at UB Law, Coene has filled a number of other roles at the law school. He has served as managing editor of the school’s Buddhism, Law & Society journal, working with Professor Rebecca French, and as a research assistant in The Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy, helping to organize academic conferences for the journal. He also worked with the late Professor Teresa Miller, on a conference commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Attica State Prison uprising and produced a series of training videos to support Miller’s work in diversity, equity and inclusion for the law school.      

He’s particularly excited about the Law, Politics and Mass Incarceration seminar he will teach, which will draw in part on research he conducted as a PhD student. At Michigan, he studied the development of penal policy in two distant jurisdictions—New South Wales, Australia and Pennsylvania—examining how those policies and prison management evolved from the 1960s to the 1990s, as well as looking at the emerging prisoners’ rights movement. “Prison officials in Australia became really interested in American penal practices in the late 20th century,” he says. “They sent study tours to the U.S. and toured American prisons.”

The niche focus of the course, he says, will enable his students to start to think more broadly about penology and the philosophies and broader forces behind how societies treat those who break the law.

“It’s a really big, fundamental matter of public policy right now, and understanding how this problem came to be is very complex,” Coene says. “There are no easy answers with a lot of the dilemmas we’ve created in the prison system. I want students to understand the complexity of how this formed—everything from history, to race relations, the evolution of institutions, as well as changes that happened in the broader society in the late 20th century. The question is, how do everyday aspects of the society you live in become fundamental to how prisons are organized? I hope to really focus on skill building, such as writing and critical thinking, in relation to these kinds of topics.”