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March 1, 2008

Incarceration statistics and a nation's collective responsibility

200501201_1p44291172250h Here are some materials and ideas to follow-up on parts of Friday's class discussion: 

First, the potent Pew Center report, "One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008." which I showcased in class is discussed and linked here.

Second, I quickly mentioned in class President George Bush's 2005 inaugural address.  That address can be found at this link, and here are a few inspiring excerpts:

America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.  From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth.  Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.  Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation.  It is the honorable achievement of our fathers.  Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time....

We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.  America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies....

The leaders of governments with long habits of control need to know: To serve your people you must learn to trust them.  Start on this journey of progress and justice, and America will walk at your side....

All Americans have witnessed this idealism, and some for the first time.  I ask our youngest citizens to believe the evidence of your eyes.  You have seen duty and allegiance in the determined faces of our soldiers.  You have seen that life is fragile, and evil is real, and courage triumphs.  Make the choice to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself — and in your days you will add not just to the wealth of our country, but to its character.

America has need of idealism and courage, because we have essential work at home — the unfinished work of American freedom. In a world moving toward liberty, we are determined to show the meaning and promise of liberty....

In America's ideal of freedom, the exercise of rights is ennobled by service, and mercy, and a heart for the weak. Liberty for all does not mean independence from one another. Our nation relies on men and women who look after a neighbor and surround the lost with love. Americans, at our best, value the life we see in one another, and must always remember that even the unwanted have worth.  And our country must abandon all the habits of racism, because we cannot carry the message of freedom and the baggage of bigotry at the same time.

Third, for a brief review of the Pew Center's report, you can check out this article about the Pew report from the media outlet Al Jazeera:

More than one percent of US adults are serving prison sentences, higher than any other country in the world, according to a new report. 

The US penal system held more than 2.3 million adults at the start of the year, the Pew Centre on the States said on Thursday. More populous China was ranked second with 1.5 million behind bars, while Russia was third with 890,000. "Beyond the sheer number of inmates, America also is the global leader in the rate at which it incarcerates its citizenry, outpacing nations like South Africa and Iran," the report said.

The report said growth in prison numbers had not been driven by a similar increase in crime rates or a corresponding increase in the nation's population.  "Rather, it flows principally from a wave of policy choices that are sending more lawbreakers to prison and, through the popular 'three-strikes' measures and other sentencing enhancements, keeping them there longer," it said.

Correction expenditure US states spent more than $44bn on corrections last year, the report said, compared with $10.6bn in 1987.  Ryan King of the Sentencing Project, a US prison reform group, told Al Jazeera that many of those currently incarcerated were serving sentences for minor offences or were drug users. "We are using tens of billions of dollars of our domestic resources to incarcerate individuals who would be much better off either under community supervision or in a public health treatment programme."

The report said that the national prison population had almost tripled between 1987 and 2007.  While one in 106 adult white men are incarcerated, one in 36 Hispanics and one in 15 African-Americans are behind bars.

Hmmmmm...  I guess President Bush is quite insightful when, in his 2005 inaugural address, he makes much of "the unfinished work of American freedom."  And the statistics in the Pew report provide another reminder of the real work for all of us if we take seriously, as I think we should, President Bush's righteous assertion that "our country must abandon all the habits of racism, because we cannot carry the message of freedom and the baggage of bigotry at the same time."

March 1, 2008 in Class reflections | Permalink


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It is a bit dated (from 2000 census) but here are ABA stats on minority representation in the legal profession. http://www.abanet.org/minorities/links/2000census.html . According to the data, 3.9 percent of lawyers are African-American; 8.8 percent of judges, magistrates, and “other judicial workers” are African American.

The same data show that 3.3 percent of lawyers are Hispanic, and 4.5 percent of judges, magistrates, and “other judicial workers” are Hispanic.

And here is another ABA page that can guide you to minority stats on students in law school (including first year enrollment and JDs awarded.)

Posted by: stephanie | Mar 1, 2008 11:01:36 AM

Prior to Friday's discussion, after reading the headlines from the PEW report I would have definitely missed the serious omission from the Editorial attacking the report below. Funny how "Investor's Business Daily" would ignore the race issue completely... (BTW, I obtained the editorial from Westlaw and it did not include the chart referenced)

Investor's Business Daily

March 3, 2008

Section: Editorials & Opinion

"Repeat: More Prisoners = Less Crime"

Crime: The number of adults imprisoned in the U.S. has hit an all-time high, a new report says, bringing with it fresh concern about "our priorities." Don't know about you, but we think this is a good thing.

The 1.5 million people now in U.S. prisons represent nearly 1% of the adult population -- an all-time high, according to the Pew Center on the States. This, Pew says, has led to much higher costs.

Last year alone, states spent $49 billion on corrections, an outlay that's been growing at a real rate of 6% for 20 years. Over the same period, real spending on prisons has risen 127% compared with a 21% increase in spending on higher education.

The folks at Pew -- along with others -- have a problem with this. "For all the money spent on corrections today," says Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project, "there hasn't been a clear and convincing return for public safety."

We respectfully disagree. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The good people at Pew look at only one side of the equation. The nearby chart shows the other. It plots the number of people in prison vs. the violent crimes rate.

Turns out that all those people in prison must have been doing a lot of bad stuff, since once they were deprived of their freedom the crime rate dropped. Last year, as the prison population swelled, the violent crime rate hit at a postwar low.

It's not hard to figure out why. Prison is a deterrent, just what it's meant to be. Saying the number of people behind bars has risen is, by itself, meaningless. It's only meaningful when compared with what the increased imprisonment is supposed to alleviate: Crime.

And as we see from the chart, it seems to do that quite well.

As for the other arguments, such as the high cost of incarceration, that's also rather trivial when you compare the far higher cost of crime to society.

Sure, states spend $49 billion on corrections. But according to more than one study over the past decade, crime costs the U.S. a lot more. One such study, published in 1999 in the University of Chicago's Journal of Law and Economics by economist David Anderson, found a net loss of more than $1.1 trillion a year, or $4,118 per American, due to crime.

That's a lot of money, and it surely has grown substantially since the study was done. Other studies come up with equally scary costs for crime. Indeed, there's no reputable study of which we're aware that says it's more costly to society to put criminals in prison than to let them keep committing crimes.

As for the claim we now spend more on jailing young men than on sending them to college -- or, as one blogger summarized it, "Harvard Costs Less Than Prison" -- that, too, is irrelevant.

The reason we put criminals away isn't because it costs more, less or the same as a Harvard education, but to mitigate the awful damage to American civil life that criminals do. Nothing more. It's not as if those who were thrown into the hoosegow would have gone to Harvard instead. Why compare the two?

As for well-meaning "reformers" who would close our prisons and send more criminals to live among us, they aren't doing any favors.

With a small handful of exceptions, the 1.5 million people in prison have committed very bad crimes. And they've found themselves in prison only after receiving due process and court trials, at considerable public expense, in the fairest justice system in the world. They are where they deserve to be, and we are all the safer for it.

Posted by: C Ingram | Mar 1, 2008 1:48:38 PM

We spent a lot of time on Friday speaking about the extent to which disenfranchisement of felons pervades Southern states and the extent to which attorneys fail to exert their power to change the world. I found this incredible article on the N.Y. Times about felon disenfranchisement in Alabama. A faulty interpretation of the voting restrictions on felons banned all felons from voting while the language technically only banned those who had committed crimes of “moral turpitude.” Because the legislature has not provided a definition of “moral turpitude,” I think it will be interesting to see the evolution of this case and the extent to which the racial tensions of the state will shape and influence the outcome of this issue. It is also interesting that a religious leader, not an attorney, is spearheading this effort to ensure voting rights for a disenfranchised population. It is also worth considering whether this development will have an impact on future elections in the state, especially since it seems like several Democrats are also playing a role.

Posted by: Renata Y. | Mar 2, 2008 8:06:00 AM

This article really made me think about how much more work there is to be done. I would not be surprised if this went to the Supreme Court. The article examines the problem we talked about on Friday from the perspective of black people on the other side of the criminal justice system - black officers. Apparently, you have to amend the Georgia state constitution to get retired black police officers the same pension as their white counterparts. This guy worked 32 years and still can't get the same retirement - just because he's black.


The article interestingly notes how sluggish the legislature has been, and perhaps due to an unwillingness of voters to pass the amendment. Getting back to the question from Friday's class - who do we blame for this - I think it is interesting that lawyers will now resolve this problem, or at least try to, through litigation after the legislature proved unwilling. Perhaps it was lawyers who created the problem in the first place, and you could blame lawyers for not litigating this all these years, but you also have to give lawyers credit for trying to solve these issues now. If it weren't for so many lawyers, indeed so many of us, who go to law school to fight for people in weak positions this would be impossible. To me this demonstrates power lawyers hold for good and bad and the need for lawyers to be (like Atticus Finch) upstanding, moral, honest and passionate about issues that involve groups to which we do not belong, ie felons, retired cops, etc.

Posted by: Scott Rowley | Mar 2, 2008 9:31:11 AM

Friday's dicussion as well as the articles posted by Berman and my classmates show that although it is unfortunate, race does matter. Racism may not be as blatant as it was 50 years ago when my grandparents were my age, but it still exists and it pervades so many different aspects of all of our lives. Although racism will probably never disappear in our society, I think it is necessary that the issues that have underlying racial issues be addressed by both the legislature and lawyers. I think that lawyers would bring the legal expertise needed to fix our criminal justice system and other institutions in society; education, health care, employment, etc. that have underlying problems revolving around race. The legislature, being the voice of the people, should be able to address the policy and societal concerns as well as fix or create laws that will help to ensure fairness for all who are subject to the criminal justice system. It is my hope that as students preparing to enter the legal profession, we take it upon ourselves to address some of the issues that continue to sustain inequality in our society.

Posted by: Page | Mar 3, 2008 8:07:03 PM

i dont think this is a very goo statistic because there are way too many people in jail, some of which aren't even guilty of the crime that they were charged with.

Posted by: nikki | May 6, 2008 10:07:39 AM

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