Mass Incarceration

Article Series: Mass Incarceration

Recently, on a conference trip to Philadelphia, I was struck by one thing that was inescapable. No, it wasn’t the smells of a chopped steak being used for the city’s signature sandwich or the incessant sounds of city traffic and red lights. Rather, it was the phrase “free Meek Mill.” The phrase was everywhere: on the sides of busses, park benches, advertisement spaces, and across electronic scrolls. Hashtagged as “#freemeekmill,” I was immediately curious what this seemingly public ad campaign meant. Other than name recognition, I wasn’t aware of the pop culture news related to Mr. Mill or why this had become a major issue in the forum of local Philadelphia politics. For those as blazingly unaware as I was, let me begin by mentioning that Meek Mill is a popular rap artist also known for his relationship with female rapper Nikki Minaj. Coincidently he is also one of Philadelphia’s own. Through his pursuit to climb the ladder of success in the music industry, he has found himself in a series of legal issues stemming from a 2008 drug dealing conviction when he was 18. Now 30, Meek Mill is on the other side of several probation violations and what most recently resulted in a prison sentence ranging between two and four years as a result of those violations . The recent judgment has sparked a serious conversation about the limits of judicial discretion, excessive punishment, and yes, a campaign to “#freemeekmill” in the hopes of securing justice. For many, this case serves as the poster child for America’s endless addiction to punitive punishment and harsh sanctions. Of course, we can inspect the case on its individual merits: should Meek Mill have been given the term he was given? While Mr. Mill’s initial conviction may indeed have been a violation of society’s established norms for safety, any sensible person recognizes how a decade-plus punishment neither enhances public safety nor reforms behavior. Beyond this case’s individual details, the conversation must shift into a much wider forum on how this country’s 30-year obsession with “building out crime has left the system ineffective, broken, and unprepared to adequately handle a never ending stream of non-violent offenders. Mass incarceration; the clinical addiction to just desserts is wreaking havoc on our most vulnerable communities and draining coffers all while leaving us with little functional output. A discussion on the state of mass incarceration and what it means for criminal justice reform advocates is now.

What is Mass Incarceration?

Mass incarceration is a term that refers to the trend in prison populations beginning in the 1980s and reflects punitive shifts in correctional sentencing, community re-entry, and sate-supervision policy . With over 2.3 million people in prison of jail, America wears of the dishonor of being the “most incarcerated” country in the world – eclipsing the totalitarian regimes of China and Iran. The concurrent rise in probation and parole further bloats the system, with an additional 5 million people under some form of state-supervision.

How did we get here?

There is no one source that can explain the era of mass incarceration, but most notable are: (1) the changing in sentencing policies; (2) an enhancement of the “war on drugs;” and, (3) the near-end of state-funded rehabilitation and mental health facilities 3. While sentencing laws have changed substantially over our nation’s history, the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 provided the catalyst for a departure in sentencing discretion. With the advent of determinate sentencing, harsher, lengthier punishment schemes were introduced. Laws mandating minimum sentences meant that people were now required to serve out longer stays behind bars and were less likely to receive any form of early release. For non-violent offenders, particularly drug users, the proverbial “war on drugs” meant that more people got wrapped up into the system. Coined by President Richard Nixon in 1974 and supported vigorously under the Reagan administration, the drug war reclassified narcotics and created a new tier of offenses for drug use. Seen as a vice threatening to destroy stable, family-oriented communities, policy-makers were able to paint the war on drugs as morally imperative. Rather than seeing drug use from the disease model, it became criminalized and punished with swift certainty. Reduced investments in rehabilitative treatment also meant that people arrested for drug use had fewer options and were almost always referred to prison. These three factors combined, with the inclusion of several other trends like increased punitive measures for supervision violations, residency and employment restrictions, and reductions in state assistance have created a vicious social cycle of offending and reoffending which prevents people from ever successfully reentering conventional society and growing the prison population to ever-increasingly astronomic heights.

Why it matters and what it means for JAC

The Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana works feverishly to remediate the effects of mass incarceration by finding sensible solutions to disparities in justice, exploring policies that can effectively reintegrate people back into society. JAC believes that punitive punishments and a reliance on brick-and-mortar incarceration costs tax payers billions of dollars all while fostering training camps for criminal activity, breaking up families, and leaving our communities weaker and less safe. JAC commits itself to advocating on behalf of the formerly incarcerated and looks forward to ushering in reform that can reduce prison populations.

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