By Thomas Infante
Arts & Entertainment Editor
An esteemed criminologist spoke in the Library Auditorium on Wednesday, Feb. 15, about the increase in incarcerations, racism in criminal justice and the decrease in crime in a presentation entitled “The Changing Environment for Criminal Justice Reform.”
Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project — a Washington D.C.-based research center that advocates for criminal justice reform — began his presentation with an overview of mass incarceration, which looks at the rise of incarcerated people in America over time.
According to Mauer, there are currently about 1.6 million people in either state or federal penitentiaries. The U.S. is the world leader in incarceration rate by a significant margin — for every 100,000 people, nearly 700 will end up in prison.
“Most of this change happened within the last 40 years,” Mauer said. “It all happened seemingly overnight through change of policy and legislature, not a change in the crime rate.”
Much of this change in policy came about during the war on drugs that began in the early 1980s, which brought record numbers of arrests in the U.S. These policies caused police in the inner cities to crack down harder on drug offenders and impose additional mandatory sentencing guidelines on them, resulting in offenders often receiving lifetime imprisonment for their crimes.
In 2014, there were more people incarcerated for drug-related crimes than there were total prisoners in 1980.
“There are diminishing returns on stopping low-level drug crimes,” Mauer said. “When an 18-year-old kid gets arrested for selling pot on the corner, another will take his place almost immediately. Just because someone was sent to prison does not mean it will improve our public safety.”
Mauer’s statistics also showed a racial bias in the current criminal justice system. For example, until the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, there were very different penalties toward possession of powder cocaine and crack cocaine. Possession of crack held a minimum 5-year prison sentence, while the laws regarding powder cocaine were more lenient.
Since more Black people are caught possessing crack and more White people with powder, this caused a disproportionate amount of arrests between Blacks and Whites for two similar drugs.
“Crime rates have actually been declining for 20 years,” Mauer told the audience. “But arrests have hardly slowed.”
According to Mauer, at the current rate of decline, it would take 88 years for America’s imprisonment rates to be as low as they were in 1980.
“We need to be more open about discussing research about rehabilitating drug users rather than legislators competing to be tougher on these crimes,” Mauer said.
In addition to the mass amounts of people in prison, the length of their sentences are far longer than those in most other countries. Prisons are now filled with people who will never leave. Approximately one out of nine prisoners is in for life.
“In many Western European countries, it is extremely unusual to be imprisoned for over 20 years for a non-violent crime,” Mauer said. “Young people are also more likely to commit crimes, which means that there are many people who will spend their entire lives in prison with no hope of release.”
Although positive change in policy is happening gradually, there is still a long way to go, according to Mauer.
“We’ve gotten used to this,” Mauer said. “Many prosecutors tell me that they like mandatory minimum sentencing because it makes their jobs easier.”
He also advocated for the use of drug courts, which aim to keep drug offenders out of jail and get them treatment. Although these courts exist in the U.S., they are rarely used compared to the number of incarcerated drug offenders.
There are also conditions for prisoners to be released for health reasons, but this, too, is rare, usually only when the inmate is at death’s door.
Mauer told the audience that significant change would likely be seen at a state level before federal.
“Some states are managing their crime well,” Mauer said. “ New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and California have all seen a 20 to 30 percent drop in crime rates in recent years with no loss to public safety.”
Recently, California lawmakers approved Proposition 47, which reduced felony drug charges to misdemeanors — a significant step in a state where three felonies will automatically get you life in prison. New York also made progress by repealing the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines of the Rockefeller drug laws in 2009.
For all of the staggering statistics, Mauer remains hopeful that in time, the way in which legislators think of crime will become more practical.
“We need to treat all kids like they’re our kids,” Mauer said. “Half the rise in the incarceration rate is due to increased prosecution. The other half from longer and mandatory sentences.”
The American criminal justice system should focus on rehabilitation and re-entry into society instead of relegating them to a new maximum-security home for the rest of their lives, Mauer said.