Category: mass incarceration

The political roots of mass incarceration

By Alan Bean

If you want to know how America became the incarceration nation, locking up six times as many of our citizens as most western democracies, look no further than this story.

I’ll admit it, my blood boils when I think of the reckless behavior of a pampered kid from a wealthy family destroying so many innocent lives.  And experience (and prejudice) leads me to suspect that an indigent defendant would not have fared nearly as well.

But you don’t change legislation in response to a single case.  This is always how it works in America.  The populous gets up in arms about an isolated case bristling with unusually bad facts.  Next, the politicians chime in with promises of vengeance.  They sense a political opportunity and fear the consequences of appearing soft.  Finally, bad laws are passed giving rise to a host of unintended consequences.

Hopefully this story will be long forgotten by the time legislators have a chance to exploit it.  But if a law is passed to ensure that rich kids are held accountable, the first to suffer will be the usual suspects from the wrong side of the tracks.

Would Texas be a safer place if the young man at the heart of this story had been sentenced to 20 years?  Inmates are released back into society in 95% of cases and generally re-enter the community as walking time bombs ticking loudly.  Prison crushes the human spirit–that is what it is designed to do.  We stopped talking about rehabilitation forty years ago.

The desire for revenge is natural and understandable, but it makes for incredibly bad public policy.  If you aren’t sure what I mean, read on . . . (more…)

Holder calls for an end to mass incarceration

By Alan Bean

In a speech delivered to the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder signaled that the Obama administration wants to move away from the philosophy of mass incarceration.

Holder’s analysis of the criminal justice system is reminiscent of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow except that Alexander’s bold racial claims are softened considerably.  Nonetheless, the AG acknowledged that the criminal justice system is systematically unfair to people of color.

The speech highlighted three particular initiatives: those designed to cut down on the incarceration of low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no association to major drug cartels; policies designed to expand the compassionate release of aging prisoners who pose no threat to public safety; and encouraging alternatives to incarceration.

Holder clearly understands that we are locking up far, far too many people and appears to understand that the costs go far beyond the inordinate price tag that comes with mass incarceration:

Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.  And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.

I was pleased to hear the AG acknowledge that federal prosecutors are making too many federal criminal cases.  Having covered a number of federal cases, Alvin Clay, the Colomb family, Ramsey Muniz, and the IRP-6, I know how easy it can be for the federal government to make a weak case stick.  Federal prosecutors have been handed sweeping powers that translate into a 98% conviction rate.  They can’t simply indict a ham sandwich–add a little mustard, and they can get a conviction!

It will be interesting to see if Holder’s critique of mindless prison expansion impacts the immigration system in a meaningful way.

Finally, I was pleased to note that Holder has given the blessing of the Obama administration to the sentencing reforms currently enjoying bi-partisan support in Congress.

Below, I have pasted the conclusion to Holder’s groundbreaking call for a new criminal justice regime, but I urge you read the entire speech. (more…)

How NOT to build a progressive coalition in Texas

By Alan Bean

Scott Henson thinks direct action is rarely a strategic tactic, but every once in a while it works.  Scott acknowledges that the tactic was highly successful during the civil rights movement but argues that the authorities quickly learned to avoid brutal and public acts of oppression.   Demonstrations may be therapeutic for those involved, he says, but they rarely accomplish strategic ends.

Occupy Wall Street is offered as Exhibit A.

I am temperamentally inclined to endorse Scott’s position.  Demonstrations have always made me uncomfortable.  When I participate it is usually because, as in Jena, the folks on the receiving end of injustice sometimes take strength from public displays of shared resolve.  The Occupy Wall Street folks brought needed attention to the growing wealth disparity in our country and its baleful influence on the political process, but when I talked to them I got the uneasy feeling that they were engaged in a form of therapeutic ritual with little strategic content.

Liberals must understand that, in states like Texas, we hold a minority position on almost every issue.  I don’t feel good about the fact that, if the GOP abortion law is passed, only women in the Golden Triangle between Dallas, Austin and Houston would have access to safe abortions.  But most folks in Texas are solidly pro-life and a lot of progressives, myself included, aren’t going to the wall for abortion rights.  I accept the logic of Roe v. Wade, but am too morally conflicted by the issue to get fired up about it.

I was proud of Wendy Davis’s bold filibuster.  But I wish we could get African Americans, Latinos and progressive whites in states like Texas to join hands on issues like hunger, mass incarceration, public education and immigration reform.  Abortion may be a defining issue for white liberal women, but you can’t build a broad-based coalition on pro-choice politics–not in the great state of Texas.  I would drive to Austin to protest mass incarceration, border militarization, and cuts to poverty programs and public education; but if abortion is the issue, I’m staying home and so will the vast majority of African Americans and Latinos.

The gerrymandering of electoral issues in Texas has been used to defeat outspoken progressives like Wendy Davis, but the redrawing of political maps is really about making white political hegemony endure as long as possible before it is washed away by the shifting demographic tides.  (See Wade Goodwyn’s excellent analysis of Texas politics.) Democrats will start winning elections in Texas long before the party is popular with the white electorate.  Smart progressives will understand this and start building a coalition that engages the passions of black and brown Texans.

Southern Republicans will adjust their position on immigration and public education when they need a respectable harvest of minority votes to win.  That day will come, but its a long way off.  It may be hard to win the presidency without minority support, but Southern elections at the national and state levels can still be won with white votes.  Leading with abortion is a bad way to win moderate white support and a sure-fire recipe for alienating Latinos and African Americans.

Another conservative decries mass incarceration

By Alan Bean

When I first became aware of the horrors of mass incarceration fifteen years ago, hardly anyone in Middle America was discussing the problem.  Things have changed.

Just last week, Michelle Alexander addressed the Biennial Convention of the American Baptist Churches in Kansas City.  American Baptists are far more progressive than Southern Baptists, to be sure, but it took some guts for denominational leaders to invite an outspoken advocate of radical reform to address a predominantly white audience.  I congratulate them.  Part of me hopes Michelle didn’t ruffle too many feathers; the other part hopes she did. (more…)

Lehrer: The GOP is the Party of Prison Reform

ICan we let some of them out? confess that I rarely feature articles in the Weekly Standard.  A few years ago, a lead article in the NeoCon magazine accused me of inventing the Jena 6 story out of whole cloth.  I was not amused.

But criminal justice reformers ignore the conservative movement at their own peril.  At heart, America remains a deeply conservative country.  Ergo, if you can’t get a few prominent conservatives to sign on to a reform agenda it’s going nowhere.  In fact, given the baleful impact of culture war polarization, associating the liberal brand with an idea, however noble, can be the kiss of death.  In this WS piece, libertarian Eli Lehrer argues that the Republicans have become the party of prison reform.  The vision is limited, he admits, but that’s what makes it work.  

I have long argued that true reform will require an eclectic mix of conservative and liberal ideas.  Still, any move away from mass incarceration is welcome, and there are plenty of good reasons on both sides of the ideological divide for making that move.  AGB

The Party of Prison Reform

Conservatives lead the way.

By Eli Lehrer

Michael Hough​—​a second-term Republican state legislator from Frederick County, Md.​—​is about as conservative as blue-state legislators come. He played a prominent role in opposing the state’s new gay marriage law, holds an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, and received a 100 percent score from the state’s business lobby. (more…)

At Mexican Border, Four in Five Drug Busts Involve American Citizens

ImagePosted by  Pierre Berastain

“Three out of four people found with drugs by the border agency are U.S. citizens, the data show. Looked at another way, when the immigration status is known, four out of five busts—which may include multiple people—involve a U.S. citizen.”

Amidst the accusations of people like Governor Brewer and Sheriff Apaio that undocumented immigrants are dangerous criminals responsible for smuggling millions of dollars worth of drugs , this article brings a new and fresh perspective.

At Mexican Border, Four in Five Drug Busts Involve American Citizens


The public’s view of a typical Mexican drug smuggler might not include U.S. Naval Academy grad Todd Britton-Harr, who was caught at a Border Patrol checkpoint in south Texas in December 2010 hauling a trailer with 1,100 pounds of marijuana.

Nor would someone like Laura Lynn Farris leap to mind. Border Patrol agents stopped the 52-year-old woman at a border checkpoint 15 miles south of the west Texas town of Alpine in February 2011 with 162 pounds of marijuana hidden under dirty blankets in laundry baskets. (more…)

Business writer wants more “good time” for federal inmates

Walter Pavlo

Forbes Magazine is hardly a haunt of bleeding heart lefties and this piece by Walter Pavlo isn’t brimming with the milk of human kindness.  Pavlo writes for Forbes about white collar crime and talks primarily to business groups.  He thinks federal prisoners, who do not benefit from parole, ought to get 128 days of good time per year instead of the measly 54 days the federal system presently allows.  If prisoners could cut their sentences by one-third by acting like model prisoners, a lot of them would.  Moreover, when they return to the free world, as 97% of them will, they will be better prepared for what lies ahead.

The idea of radically reducing the prison population makes sense even if you don’t care about the human dynamics of the issue.  It saves tax payer money.  But here’s the question; if we don’t have jobs for these people, and if we refuse to hire ex-offenders with marketable skills, what’s to keep them from re-offending?  It will take a combination of compassion and common sense to answer this question.  If there is no work for felons in the free world we must make work for them–and that could cost almost as much as locking everybody up for everything.   (more…)

If you think private prisons make sense, read this . . .

By Alan Bean

The Sentencing Project published this report over a year ago but it remains the single best introduction to the truly scary private prison industry on the web.  Like everything put out by Marc Mauer’s organization, Too Good to be True: Private Prisons in America is cautious, understated, balanced and authoritative.

Nationwide, about half the states have significant private prison populations and half do not.  Some states dabbled with privatization, then gave it up; others have recently developed an unwarranted enthusiasm for selling their prisons to the private industry.

But it is the federal prison system, thanks largely to almost invisible programs like Operation Streamline, that is the real sugar daddy for one of America’s creepiest industries.  Since 2005, when the feds started prosecuting the folks detained at the border for illegal entry or illegal re-entry, 400,000, largely Latino detainees spend time in federal prisons and detention centers every year.  Latinos comprise 16% of the American population and over 50% of federal prisoners. (more…)