Criminal Justice Reform Part I, Before Prison
This week is part one of our three-part installment on Criminal Justice Reform.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. There are now 2.2 million adults in America’s prisons and jails, which represents a 500% increase over the last 40 years. This means that for every 100,000 people living in the U.S., approximately 670 of them are in prison.
The Rise Of The Prosecutorial Zealot
Why does America put so many people behind bars? Because, argues legal reporter for The New York Times, Emily Bazelon, of mandatory sentencing and the resulting shift in power to prosecutors.
In the 1980s, America responded to a rise in crime by introducing new, tough measures that included mandatory minimum sentencing - laws that require judges to impose identical sentences for the same crime, regardless of the circumstances. The idea was to take discretion away from judges and make the whole system fairer by ensuring everyone received the same punishment. But, such is the law of unintended consequences, this now means that your prison sentence is determined by the charges the prosecutor decides to bring against you. The power of discretion has not, therefore, been removed from the courts, it has just been shifted from judges to prosecutors.
In this podcast interview, Emily Bazelon discusses the growth in prosecutorial power in America, and why the key to criminal justice reform lies in the hands of… the prosecutors themselves.
A Life Behind Bars
“Redemption is the essence of what it is to be human.” These were the words of then-Governor Jerry Brown as he explained why he’d chosen to commute former San Quentin inmate, Earlonne Woods’, lifelong prison sentence for attempted second-degree robbery. We have, he said, to recognize people’s ability to change, and give prisoners serving long sentences the opportunity for hope.
In this episode, Earlonne Woods, host, and co-creator of podcast series ‘Ear Hustle,’ which looks at life inside San Quentin prison, discusses the path that led him into America’s judicial system at age 17, and how he's changed as a result. He is joined by co-creator, Nigel Woods, as she discusses what it was like spending 40-plus hours a week inside the prison as she recorded the show, and what it taught her about the complexities of being a man.
The First Step To Reform
The First Step Act was signed into law on December 18th, 2018. It is the first major federal criminal justice reform legislation to pass in nearly a decade and had bipartisan support from Senators as ideologically opposed as Kamala Harris and Ted Cruz, and advocates as diverse as the Koch Brothers and the ACLU. So what does the Act do? Essentially, it reduces prison sentences by altering sentencing guidelines (like mandatory minimum sentences), facilitates early release, bans certain correctional practices (i.e. shackling pregnant women during childbirth), and broadens rehabilitative opportunities in prisons. But the implementation of the Act relies on a risk assessment tool that hasn’t yet been developed, making the timeline for its full rollout uncertain.
In this episode, Critical Value weighs up this first major step in tackling America’s mass incarceration crisis and considers the fundamental question underpinning our criminal justice system: why do we send people to prison in the first place?