Mass Incarceration

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

I heard those words recently and I can’t get them out of my mind.

I heard those words from Bryan Stevenson who is the founder of the Equal Justice Institute and was recently the keynote speaker at a symposium on mass incarceration at Roger Williams University School of Law.

It was an amazing, disturbing and thought provoking day. Hundreds of lawyers, judges, students, social workers and formerly incarcerated Rhode Islanders gathered to discuss the problem of mass incarceration in our state and country. Some who were there confront the issue of mass incarceration every day – people like Mary McElroy, Rhode Island’s public defender and A.T Wall, RI’s Director of the Department of Corrections.

Others desperately needed to hear how our justice system is failing so profoundly – people like Speaker of the House Nick Mattiello and representatives of Governor Gina Raimondo’s office.

For those of us under 40, the fact that 2.3 million people in America are in prison seems normal. It’s not. For those of you who are older, you may not even realize that in 1972, only 272,000 people were in prison. Our prison population was pretty steady from 1900 to 1972 and then it exploded, increasing 10 fold in just 40 years. As a result, we have more children growing up without parents, more mentally ill people spending time behind bars where they get far less medical attention than they require, and more drug addicts serving long sentences rather than getting the treatment they need. It has also resulted in enormous disparities in the demographics of the people who are prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to prison. At every step in the prosecutorial process, the poor and people of color are much more likely to be treated more harshly by the criminal justice system.

All of this comes at a huge qualitative price to society and it also comes at a huge price tag. It costs an average of $43,000 a year to house a Rhode Island inmate. The 2016 proposed budget for the Department of Corrections is $213 million. That is $213 million that is not being spent on schools, roads, healthcare, or tax relief. Every year that number grows and we do not get any safer.

The mass incarceration of America should not be a partisan or divisive issue. It’s an issue that we can and must solve to move America forward and restore civil liberty. We can start to solve this crisis by addressing mandatory minimum sentences, abolishing the for-profit prison industry that drives criminal justice policy in many states, focusing on treatment rather than incarceration for the mentally ill and drug dependent, and rededicating ourselves to the notion that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

For more on this subject, I highly recommend watching Bryan Stevenson’s Ted Talk and visiting the links below.