Mass Incarceration

  • August 6, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Nicole Austin-Hillery, Director and Counsel of Washington, D.C. Office, The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law 

    *This post originally appeared on The Brennan Center’s blog

    Congress went home last week without tackling several critical issues facing our country. This is common in an election year. But this year should have been different. For the first time in nearly five decades, Americans will go to the polls in November without a key protection under the Voting Rights Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court gutted last year in Shelby County v. Holder. When Congress comes back in September, leaders of both parties must act to ensure every citizen can freely cast a ballot.

    Today, on the 49th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act, it’s worth looking back at how far our nation has come on voting discrimination and race, and how we can move forward together to ensure equality and justice for all.

    The America we knew in 1965 was vastly different than the one we know now. The civil rights struggle showed our country through a black and white prism. President Lyndon Baines Johnson spoke of this race divide when he signed the VRA, which made it illegal for states to discriminate based on race in voting.

    “The stories of our Nation and of the American Negro are like two great rivers,” he said, “flow[ing] through the centuries along divided channels.” Only after the Civil War, Johnson remarked, did the two rivers begin “to move toward one another.” And a century later, the VRA would allow the two currents to “finally mingle and rush as one great stream across the uncertain and the marvelous years of the America that is yet to come.”

  • July 24, 2014

    by Ellery Weil

    At The Week, Andrew Cohen discusses Wednesday’s botched execution of Arizona inmate Joseph Wood, a “state-sponsored, judicially sanctioned human experiment that went terribly wrong.” For more on botched executions, ACS held a call this past May featuring Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick and Megan McCracken, Eighth Amendment Resource Counsel with the U.C. Berkeley School of Law's Death Penalty Clinic, to discuss the execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett.

    Matt Ford of the Atlantic discusses the mass incarceration crisis, and its broader effects on the nation.

    Dominic Perella speculates on the probability that this week’s decisions in Halbig and King will result in the Affordable Care Act going back before the Supreme Court on msnbc.

    Writing for The Washington Post, Daniel Hertz explains the legacy of Milliken v. Bradley, and how 40 years later, its legacy continues to haunt our school systems.

  • May 7, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Vincent Southerland, Criminal Justice Practice, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund

    America is finally starting to take its first small steps on the path to curing its decades-long addiction to mass incarceration. Recently, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Eric Holder, testified before the United States Sentencing Commission and called for reductions to federal sentences for certain drug offenses. In doing so, Attorney General Holder declared that “over-reliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable, it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate,” a statement many of us—who for years have been raising the alarm bell about America’s mass incarceration problem—have long known to be true.

    Attorney General Holder’s comments strike at the heart of the problem: mass incarceration has devastated African-American communities, families, and lives all around the country. Sustained changes to the policies and attitudes that created this epidemic, however, are the real key. In order for that change to happen, our nation’s moral orientation with mass incarceration and criminal justice will have to adjust accordingly.

    At bottom, criminal justice reforms need to be driven by the moral imperative of repairing all that is wrong with the current system. As advocates for change, we must make sure that the reform narrative includes the human costs of mass incarceration and a broken criminal justice system, not just the concern over dollars and cents. The Moral Monday movement—a multi-issue, grassroots, multiracial campaign active in the courtroom, streets, and the ballot box—offers a salient example of how ethics and the lived experiences of real people can drive change and incite action. The movement shifted North Carolina’s political discourse toward morality while focusing on individual stories and the damage done to real people by real, and unjust, policies.

  • September 26, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    If you are in prison today, you are likely a minority and poor, as Southern Center for Human Rights leader Stephen Bright noted in an interview with ACSblog highlighted earlier this week.

    Many are also imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes. A report from the Brennan Center notes that nearly “half the people in state prisons are there for drug crimes. Almost half the people in federal prisons are there for drug crimes. Only 7.6 percent of federal cocaine prosecutions and 1.8 percent of federal crack cocaine prosecutions are for high level trafficking.”

    While the Department of Justice recently announced that prosecutors should not seek mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases, Professor Alex Kreit notes that there are “many moving parts” to the nation’s costly war on drugs, which have developed over several decades. The drug war and its impact will not be erased overnight.

    In an interview with ACSblog, Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst for the Open Society Foundations, takes note of the lengthy war on drugs and its devastating impact on minority communities.

    Taifa said, “Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, by mass incarceration.” And even with some progress, such as the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act, the statistics “remain staggering.”

    She continued, “It is daunting to know that one in three young black men are under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system on any given day, at any given time; whether in prison, whether in jail, whether on probation, whether on parole.”

    Taifa concluded that the situation has greatly harmed generations of minorities. “This absolutely must stop."

    Watch the entire interview here or below.

  • April 9, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    It’s been 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to counsel even if they cannot afford it. But too many states have not lived up to their constitutional obligation of ensuring that indigent defendants have counsel, helping lead to mass incarceration.

    A new report from the Brennan Center For Justice explains that the states’ woefully ineffective handling of indigent defense cases has led to mass incarceration that is far more costly than providing adequate counsel to poor defendants. The report also provides suggestions for reforming the system.

    In Gideon at 50: Three Reforms to Revive the Right to Counsel it is noted that at the time the high court down Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963 there were about 217,000 people in prison. “Today, the incarcerated population has expanded to approximately 2.3 million people. The United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prison population. One in four American adults now has been convicted of a crime. We live in an era of mass incarceration,” the report states.

    If Gideon’s promise were being met, then it is likely the country could more easily overcome the crisis of mass imprisonment.

    “Our poorly funded public defense system exacerbates our nation’s mass incarceration problem,” the Brennan report continues. “Rarely does the accused have adequate legal representation. Rarely is their fight balanced. Rarely do public defenders have the resources they need to keep Gideon’s promise of providing a constitutional right to effective counsel.”

    The report makes a strong case that it would be a far more effective use of public dollars to help ensure indigent defendants have competent, adequate counsel instead of continuing to support a mass incarceration system that is incredibly costly and harmful to minority communities.

    First, the report notes that mass imprisonment largely targets minority communities. “African-American and Hispanics, who make up less than 30 percent of the country’s population, are nearly 60 percent of the prison population. Whites, with 64 percent of the general population, make up approximately 35 percent of the prison population.”