Author illustrates problems with US incarceration rate
Even though the country imprisons more citizens than ever before, guest lecturer Marc Mauer said crime rates have not decreased.
Mauer spoke to a class enrolled in the University’s Signature Course “Lessons from Europe” in Loree Hall on Douglass campus yesterday to highlight the flaws in the United States’ race to incarcerate. The Center for European Studies hosted the lecture.
“It may make us feel good in our gut to send [criminals] to prison, but it’s not solving the problems,” he said.
Mauer is the executive director of “The Sentencing Project,” an organization which focuses on reversing this incarceration issue, said Roger Kelemen, the course’s professor in the Department of Political Science.
“It’s an organization dedicated to doing research on our criminal justice system and to advocate for alternatives to incarceration as we’re dealing with crime in our society,” Kelemen said.
The United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other country, Mauer said. This trend creates more hardships than it prevents by threatening American democracy, illustrating racial prejudice and causing harm to families.
“We are world leaders not only in the death penalty, but the length of sentences and life sentences without parole,” he said.
Mauer, author of “Race to Incarcerate,” said imprisonments in the U.S. remained stagnant from the ‘20s to the ‘70s. But in the past 40 years, the number unprecedentedly increased.
Mauer said he blames the statistical increases and harsh prison sentences on what he calls the “Get Tough Movement,” an ideology affirming that treating prisoners jarringly and giving longer prison sentences will decrease the crime rate.
California’s three-strike-policy illustrates this movement, Mauer said. When the state deems a person’s first two offenses as violent, the third offense, even minor felonies, can lead to his or her imprisonment.
Mauer noted a case where a man stole three golf clubs, but since this was his third felony the state sentenced him to 25 years to life in prison. Another man’s third felony was stealing $153 worth of videotapes, and he is now serving a 50-year sentence.
“This is what their three-strike policy has brought us,” Mauer said.
In jail, penalties prevent prisoners from exercising their voting rights, which reflects poorly on American democracy, he said. In last year’s presidential election, nearly 6 million people could not participate in voting.
Increased incarceration also demonstrates racist undertones, he said. One out of three black males born today are likely to go to prison, compared to one out of six Latinos and one out of 17 whites, he said.
Mauer said serving jail time affects prisoners’ family and friends as well. Children of prisoners grow up without their parent’s emotional and financial support, and deal with the stigma attached to having an incarcerated parent.
He said keeping one person in jail for a year could cost $25,000. Instead of wasting $125,000 of taxpayers’ money for a drug dealer’s five-year prison sentence, Mauer suggested the government use the money to directly ease the drug problem.
The money spent to keep a drug dealer in prison is wasted — Mauer said another drug dealer would easily take his or her place.
All these issues arise from a faulty prison system, which so far has failed to solve criminal problems, and Europe’s more relaxed policies made Mauer’s speech applicable to the signature course, Kelemen said.
“We look at different areas of public policy where there are controversial issues that we’re trying to deal with in the U.S.,” he said. “Then we try to look at what we can learn from how European countries addressed the same issues.”
Mauer said while most societies’ punishments are typically conducted proportionally to crimes, this disproportional race to incarcerate is causing problems for America. For example, European countries do not sentence prisoners to death and those in jail have the right to vote.
Elizabeth Kantor, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, said the guest lecture was helpful in the context of the class.
“It showed a really detailed picture of a major problem we have in America that is not so much of an issue in other countries.”