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Scholars debate incarceration

Causes, implications and role of race discussed in context of mass incarceration

“What do we owe the offending class?” asked Glenn Loury, professor of economics, in a discussion-based talk on mass incarceration at the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions Wednesday afternoon. 

Steven Teles, associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, was originally the intended speaker for the talk, entitled “Why Conservatives Are Changing Their Tune on Mass Incarceration.” But Teles could not make it to College Hill due to a delayed flight. A small group of faculty members with experience related to incarceration led the discussion in his place.

Loury spoke about the different causes of mass incarceration and the ethics involved with the issue.

“We decide where to put public housing projects; we decide whether to create job-training programs or not,” he said. We decide about a lot of things that are implicated in the social formations from which the thing that we fear comes.”

Loury served on a committee of the National Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit organization in Washington that serves to provide “independent, objective advice to the nation related to science and technology,” according to its website. The committee met for two years, looking at the causes and consequences of high incarceration rates  in the United States. Committee members surveyed empirical information about the extent and nature of incarceration, the role of prosecutors and various political factors, Loury said.

“We could rethink the scope and scale of the war on drugs. We could rethink the discretion of judges on sentencing. We could rethink ‘three strikes and you’re out,’” he said, noting possible solutions that the committee discussed.

The three-strikes sentencing rule Loury mentioned is a commonly used statute by state governments that imposes more severe sentences for people convicted of three serious criminal offenses.

The small audience, composed of faculty members, graduate students and upperclassmen, did not entirely agree with some of the panelists. Two students in particular, Cherise Morris ’16 and Jamie Marsicano ’15.5, who mentioned their involvement working with incarcerated people, voiced their thoughts during the discussion.

“People who work at the (Adult Correctional Institute), which is about 20 minutes away, get paid 13 cents an hour, and they produce products that are then used by people outside of the prison,” Morris said.

“I see that as empirical evidence of a long-standing trend that was started with chattel slavery, moved through Jim Crow-era America and is now involved in mass incarceration,” she added.

“You don’t even need empirical evidence,” Marsicano said. “It’s absolutely unquestionable that the upward trend in mass incarceration and the similar trend in inequality are related.”

Marsicano added that “prisons should be abolished completely,” at which point the students were cut off by Loury.

James Morone, director of the Taubman Center and professor of political science, urban studies and public policy, also addressed the various causes of mass incarceration.

In America, there is “mass inequality,” he said. “In the mid ’70s, we were about 10 percent behind the typical European nation in terms of equality … but now we’re closer to the least egalitarian nation on Earth. We’re in the same league with Brazil and Mexico.” Morone said he saw three trends: high rates of incarceration, widespread inequality in the country and a change in the racial demographics voting for different political parties. “I wonder if it all is somehow related,” he added.

Bradley Brockmann ’76, executive director of Brown’s Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, cited extraordinary levels of mental illness and substance abuse — and a lack of care available — as causes of mass incarceration.

“We have a public health system that has historically not believed in providing health care for the poor and then also a criminal justice system that has criminalized mental illness and substance use addiction,” Brockmann said. “You have a perfect circle with two broken systems feeding one another.”

The professors further discussed whether mass incarceration was mainly a race issue.

“This is not Jim Crow. This is America, 21st century. Yes, we have presumed racism. We have real racism. But that’s not the only thing going on,” Loury said.

Just as the discussion began to heat up, with Loury and Morris debating back and forth about whether incarceration should be a function of government, time ran out for the talk, which ran from noon to 1 p.m.

Despite the disagreement within the group, Sam Kalirch GS said he thought the discussion went well.

“I thought Glenn was extremely helpful and insightful with his particular experience and background,” he said of Loury. “Perhaps some people spoke out in disagreement, but I thought it was good to get a little debate going.”



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