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April 7, 2018

Reading in preparation of John Pfaff's visit on April 12 and our discussions of mass incarceration

9780465096916As repeatedly mentioned in class, Fordham Law Professor John Pfaff will be on campus this coming Thursday, April 12.  At 4pm at the Barrister Club he will be delivering the Reckless-Dinitz Lecture titled "Moving Past the Standard Story: Rethinking the Causes of Mass Incarceration." Here is the abstract for this lecture:

"Reducing America's exceptional reliance on incarceration is one of the few issues of genuine bipartisan cooperation these days. Yet despite years of work, change has been slow and halting.  One critical reason is that the story we tell about what has driven prison growth often emphasizes causes that matter less at the expense of those that matter more.
"We talk about the impact of long sentences — which certainly matter — but end up overlooking the even more important role of prosecutorial charging behavior in the process.  We emphasize the need to stop sending people to prison for drugs, but as a result fail to talk about changing how we punish those convicted of violence — even though only 15% of the prison population is serving time for drugs, compared to over 50% for violence.  And reformers frequently direct their attention on private prisons, and thus don't focus on the fact that public institutions hold over 90% of all inmates, and that (public) correctional officer unions and legislators with public prisons in their districts play far bigger roles than the private prison firms in pushing back against reform efforts. Even the modest reductions in prison populations since 2010 are something to celebrate, but more substantive cuts will require us to start asking tougher questions about the sorts of changes we need to demand."

As I have noted before, Professor Pfaff is the author of Locked in: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration—and How to Achieve Real Reform (2017), and I expect his lecture will be covering many points he develops in his book.  Were I an evil lawprof, I could demannd that you all read his full book ASAP.  Instead, I will be content to here link to some effective reviews of Locked In:

Though everyone should feel free to read Locked In, for class discussion purposes I think it might be useful for folks to read Professor Pfaff latest commentary titled "A Smarter Approach to Federal Assistance with State-Level Criminal Justice Reform."  Here is its abstract:

This brief explains how Congress and the president can best help reduce our country’s outsized reliance on imprisonment, a goal with rare, widespread bipartisan support. Successful interventions will need to target issues that previous efforts have overlooked or ignored, and they will need to take better account of the haphazard ways that costs, benefits, and responsibilities are fractured across city, county, state, and federal governments. If designed properly, however, federal efforts could play an important role in pushing our criminal justice system to adopt more efficient, as well as more humane, approaches to managing and reducing crime.

April 7, 2018 in Class activities, Scope of imprisonment | Permalink


After reviewing the materials above, I was left with a few questions about Mr. Pfaff's proposal. First, (and maybe because I have not read the entire book) I do not understand how the small federal resources mentioned being targeted more effectively will actually result in change. It made me wonder if states would continue, as was mentioned they have in the past with the other federal grants, to decide that the costs of accepting the federal money are not worth the requirements. What about the proposed system, of targeting the money in areas where the states currently spend less money, would cause a substantial change? Second, this article made me wonder, if this is an issue with the various degrees of local politics, (county and city) versus federal as Mr. Pfaff claims, why was the proposed reform mentioned seemingly all federal initiatives? Mr. Pfaff seems to argue that many of the issues with the current system are related to more local matters and the complications the federal government has had in forcing change in those areas, but I do not understand how more federal reform would dramatically make the changes he discusses.

Posted by: MacKenzie Newberry | Apr 11, 2018 1:26:19 PM

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