Mass Incarceration

  • February 7, 2013

    Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, in a recent column for The New York Times explores the incentives for police officers to dissemble before criminal juries. For starters, police officers largely can get away with it. In cities, quotas for arrests further incentivize police to lie about what actually happened during apprehensions of suspected criminals. The failed war on drugs and its laws promising federal dollars “have encouraged state and local law enforcement to boost drug arrests in order to compete for millions of dollars in funding.” As Alexander notes, defendants are justifiably afraid to raise these issues in court because what jury would believe a minority drug offender with a criminal record over a decorated police officer?

    posted by ESA

  • July 19, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The failed “war on drugs” certainly helped the proliferation of for-profit prisons, but the federal government’s increasing reliance on many of the same companies to detain undocumented immigrants and others awaiting court resolutions is not only furthering private prison profits but the need for mass incarceration, a new report from The Sentencing Project reveals.

    In “Dollars and Detainees: The Growth of For-Profit Prisons,” Cody Mason, a program associate for The Sentencing Project, reports that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) have turned to for-profit companies to detainee individuals while the courts decide their fates. ICE detains undocumented immigrants and the USMS, among other things, holds “all federal detainees from the time they enter federal custody until they are either acquitted or convicted,” Mason writes.

    Both of those entities, Mason explains jump-started the for-profit prison industry. ICE’s predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service first contracted in 1987 with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Today CCA and the GEO Group are the nation’s “largest private prison companies.”

    Mason’s report shows that from 2002 – 2011 ICE detainees in private facilities jumped by 208 percent and the number of USMS detainees in for-profit facilities rose by 355 percent.

    “In contrast there was respective growth of 28 percent and 67 percent in the number of state and federal prisoners held in private facilities. As a result, the combined population of privately-held ICE and USMS detainees nearly equaled the number of federal prisoners in private facilities in 2010,” Mason writes.

    ICE’s increased use of private detention facilities, not surprisingly, provided a big boost to the prison companies’ profits, a $5 billion industry. Mason notes that the private detention centers are run by “many of the same companies that own and manage private prisons, and that it is common for these facilities to house detainees for ICE and USMS alongside persons sentenced for criminal convictions.”

  • June 13, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Inimai M. Chettiar, Policy Counsel, and Vanita Gupta, Deputy Legal Director, at the American Civil Liberties Union. Ms. Gupta directs the ACLU’s Center for Justice and its Safe and Fair Initiative to End Overincarceration. Ms. Chettiar serves as national legislative counsel coordinating the Initiative, and is incoming Director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.


    Elderly prisoners are the least dangerous group of people behind bars but the most expensive to incarcerate. Yet despite this truth, the number of elderly prisoners is skyrocketing. Harsher sentencesfor less serious crimes – one defining characteristic of our failed “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies – are responsible for this staggering increase in the number of older prisoners, and taxpayers are taking the hit.

    You may be shocked to learn how much money states are dumping into housing aging prisoners who pose little safety risk. Today the American Civil Liberties Union released a report, “At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly,” which details the growth of our aging prisoner population, the low public safety threat elderly prisoners pose and the fiscal impact of incarcerating them. Strikingly, the report estimates that the average aging prisoner costs taxpayers about twice as much as the average prisoner.

    The report is co-authored by the ACLU’s fiscal policy analyst and in-house economist, Will Bunting. He conducted a fiscal impact analysis, weighing the cost of incarcerating the average aging prisoner against the burden releasing that same prisoner would impose on public benefit programs. Even taking into consideration the cost of state payments for Medicaid, supplemental security food stamps, energy assistance, and other public assistance benefits, the report estimates that states could save $66,000 per year for each aging person released from prison. To put this number in context, the average American household makes $40,000. The money thus saved could be redistributed to more worthwhile and cost-effective state goals like education and infrastructure.

    A look at the grander scheme of things is even more startling: in 1988, the United States spent about $11 billion on the entire corrections system. Today, we spend about $16 billion annually on the aging prisoner population alone.

  • April 19, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Christina Swarns, LDF Director of the Criminal Justice Practice, and Eva Paterson, Equal Justice Society President and Co-Founder. Paterson is also a member of the Bay Area Lawyer Chapter Board of Advisors.


    Few cases involving the intersection of race, criminal law, and procedure have had the reach and impact of McCleskey v. Kemp, a United States Supreme Court decision decided 25 years ago, on April 22, 1987. This decision set the stage for more than 20 years of dramatically increasing racial disparities within the criminal justice system.

    In McCleskey, the Supreme Court declared that a criminal justice system that treats Blacks worse than whites is “inevitable” and that the Constitution is only violated by instances of intentional racial discrimination by individual actors in specific cases. 

    Specifically, the Court refused to set aside the death sentence of Warren McCleskey, an African American man who was sentenced to death in Georgia for the killing of a white person, despite the fact that statistical evidence demonstrated that in Georgia capital cases, African Americans were more likely to receive a death sentence than any other defendants, and that African American defendants who killed white victims were the most likely to be sentenced to death.

    The implications of the McCleskey decision are profound. Because of McCleskey, there is no remedy for – and, indeed, no constitutional problem with – the fact that Blacks are disproportionately stopped, searched, arrested, held on bail, charged with serious crimes (including death-eligible offenses), denied plea bargains, convicted, and sentenced to prison or execution. 

    There is no constitutional basis for challenging the fact that one in three African American males will enter state or federal prison at some point in his lifetime; and that although African Americans make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population, they amount to 44 percent of sentenced inmates – the largest group behind bars. 

  • April 3, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Inimai Chettiar, Policy Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, where she serves as national legislative counsel to end mass incarceration in states across the country.


    Yesterday a divided Supreme Court ruled in Florence v. Burlington that any person arrested can be subject to a strip search - even for a minor offense or traffic violation – without any reason to suspect that they may be carrying a weapon or contraband. (Read the ACLU press release here.)

    As disturbing as the practice of subjecting people accused of minor offenses to degrading strip searches is, it wouldn’t be a problem if those people weren’t thrown behind bars in the first place. Unfortunately, U.S. jails are full of people accused of minor, nonviolent crimes. One such person was Albert Florence (pictured), a 35-year-old Black man erroneously arrested in 2005 for failing to pay a traffic fine he had already paid –  and whose experience is the center of the case decided by the Court.

    A New Jersey state trooper pulled over Florence’s pregnant wife as she was driving Florence and their four-year-old son to dinner to celebrate their purchase of a home.  Because Florence owned the vehicle, the officer ran his license and discovered a warrant for an outstanding noncriminal traffic fine. Despite the fact that Florence had already paid the fine and carried an official letter proving it, the police handcuffed and arrested him and dragged him off to jail.  He was incarcerated for six days and subjected to two invasive strip searches. As Florence recounts, "I was just told, 'Do as you're told.' Wash in this disgusting soap and obey the directions of the officer who was instructing me to turn around, lift my genitals up, turn around, and squat." The next day a judge freed Florence, confirming that he had in fact paid his fine.  (You can hear more from Florence in an ACS podcast interview. )

    In a 5-4 opinion, the Court held that two New Jersey county jails had not violated the Fourth Amendment by routinely strip searching all new detainees including those, like Albert Florence, who had been arrested for minor offenses and were unlikely to spend more than one night in jail. With 13 million Americans jailed each year, the decision could have far reaching consequences. 

    At the same time, the Court was careful to note that the strip search policies it upheld did not involve any physical contact with the detainee, and only applied to detainees who were housed with the general population. Whether those reservations prove to be meaningful constraints on the power of prison officials to strip search detainees remains to be seen. More significantly, perhaps, at least 10 states already prohibit routine strip searches without reasonable suspicion, including New Jersey. (Read the ACLU’s amicus brief submitted on behalf of former attorneys general of New Jersey.)

    Yesterday’s ruling provides the country with an opportune moment to reflect on our epidemic of mass incarceration. There are six million people currently in prison or under correctional supervision in the U.S. — more than were in Stalin’s gulags.