Mass Incarceration

  • 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.”

  • February 21, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Thanks to scholars like Michelle Alexander, Americans and policymakers are increasingly questioning the effectiveness the nation’s system of mass incarceration and taking note of its great harm to certain populations of Americans.

    In this ACS Book Talk, Alexander, a former ACLU attorney and now a law professor at Ohio State University, explains how mass incarceration has disproportionately targeted African Americans. She wrote that more “African Americans are under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”

    The widespread use of solitary confinement in our nation’s prisons is also coming under greater – and long overdue – scrutiny, as noted in this ACSblog post, which highlighted a 2011 statement from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture that blasted solitary confinement as “a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation” that “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

    The conservative columnist George F. Will is also weighing in on the matter, noting in a Feb. 20 piece for The Washington Post that “tens of thousands of American prison inmates are kept in protracted solitary confinement that arguably constitutes torture and probably violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’”

    Will cites federal law on torture barring “conduct ‘specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.’” He notes what others have long known, that “severe mental suffering from prolonged solitary confinement puts the confined at risk of brain impairment.”

    Although solitary confinement was once considered a humane tool for rehabilitation, it is now widely considered debilitating, creating inmates who are unfit for social interaction.

    “Americans should be roused against this by decency – and prudence,” Will writes.

     

  • 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.