[Pnews] Is the Fight to End Mass Incarceration Wasting Away in Washington?

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Aug 9 11:17:57 EDT 2016


  Is the Fight to End Mass Incarceration Wasting Away in Washington?

By James Kilgore / August 8, 2016

Mass incarceration’s profile as a national issue appears to be on the 
wane. Throughout 2015, the nation’s over-reliance on imprisonment drew a 
constant spotlight, producing a plethora of bipartisan policy proposals 
and expressions of moral outrage in Beltway circles. In March last year, 
Newt Gingrich and Democrat stalwart Van Jones co-hosted 
an unprecedented Washington, D.C. conference 
of nearly 500 key role players billed as a “Bipartisan Summit on 
Criminal Justice Reform.” The Koch Brothers Foundation teamed up with 
George Soros’ Open Society forces to sponsor it. Author and formerly 
incarcerated activist Shaka Senghor spoke, as did Georgia's 
Republican governor Nathan Deal. At a moment of great congressional 
discord, people across the spectrum were finally agreeing on at least 
one thing: the U.S. was spending too much money on corrections and 
locking up too many people, especially black folks.

Activists added to the hype, pressuring presidential candidates in the 
early stages of the campaign. Movement for Black Lives leaders stressed 
the issue of mass incarceration in a widely shared conversation 
with Hillary Clinton. Black Lives Matter spokespeople interrupted Bernie 
Sanders' speeches on two occasions, leading Sanders to add 
<http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/#.NS42sdME9> criminal justice 
reform to his talking points and to insert “racial justice” into his 
list of priorities. At the Senate level, Republican hopeful Rand Paul 
was co-sponsoring sentencing reform legislation 
with Cory Booker.

To top it off, President Obama visited 
a federal prison, and then released some 6,000 people from federal 
institutions in November. The Pope added fuel to the reform fire by 
dropping in 
on a Pennsylvania facility. The condemnation of mass incarceration and a 
new spirit of offering people with felony convictions a second chance 
was flowing from all quarters.

Yet as the presidential campaign heated up, mass incarceration began to 
fade from the scene. The bully in the presidential campaign playground, 
Donald Trump, contributed immensely to the change in climate. Posturing 
as the “law and order” candidate, Trump has stifled Republican reform 
discourse. At the Republican National Convention, he summed up his 
overall approach to criminal justice with one militant declaration 
“The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon—and I 
mean very soon—come to an end. Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety 
will be restored.”

With Trump’s rise, foot soldiers promising to “make America safe again” 
have come out of the woodwork to replace the bipartisan unity advocates. 
Milwaukee’s African-American police chief David Clarke has become a 
one-man speaker’s bureau for renewed war on the streets. Wearing full 
dress uniform regalia, he opened his address to the RNC with a vow 
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVuIhnyggUg> to make something “very 
clear”: “Blue lives matter in America.” Clarke went on to label Black 
Lives Matter and Occupy as forces of “social disorder” and “anarchy.” 
Clarke represents a growing police backlash trumpeting the myth of a 
reborn crime wave in the U.S. Both statistics and opinion poll findings 
provide at best minimal support for such claims. While violent crime 
rates did increase slightly 
in 2015, they have steadily declined during Obama’s years in office and 
are at much lower levels 
than in the early 1990s.

Moreover, Republican law-and-order fervor doesn’t reflect popular 
sentiments. Recent Gallup polls do show 
an increasing concern about crime and violence, but a July 13 survey 
<http://www.gallup.com/poll/1675/most-important-problem.aspx> revealed 
that only 6 percent of the population identified crime as the most 
important problem facing the country today. By comparison, 27 percent 
named “economic problems” as the number one priority. Ultimately, the 
resurgence of the law and order mantra may be less about about facts and 
figures and more about fanning the flames of fear, racism and xenophobia.

Whatever hope existed for promoting bipartisan unity on criminal justice 
at the RNC was in the end derailed by the committee of 112 tasked with 
finalizing the party platform 
<https://www.gop.com/the-2016-republican-party-platform/>. The 112 
focused on condemning the Supreme Court for not opening the door to 
wider application of the death penalty and accused Attorney General 
Loretta Lynch of conducting a “campaign of harassment against police 
forces around the country.” While supporting some jail diversion 
programs like Drug Courts, their top priority for prisons was not 
closure or budget cuts, but making sure authorities “regain control of 
their correctional institutions, some of which have become ethnic and 
racial battlegrounds.”

Joining Trump and Clarke in leading the law and order charge was Newt 
Gingrich. Getting a whiff of a chance at the vice-presidential slot, 
Newt dropped reform talk and devoted his speech at the RNC 
to hymns of praise for Trump and condemning “radical Islamic 
terrorists.” In light of all of this along with “the centrality of 
Nixonian law and order” to Trump’s electoral vision, emeritus 
criminology professor Tony Platt told AlterNet, “it’s unclear right now 
if the campaign for modest federal reforms will continue.”

The Democrats

In contrast to the Republican about-face, the Democratic Convention 
opted for toning down their positions. While they brought the mothers of 
black people slain by police on stage, the calls in the platform to end 
mass incarceration, reform mandatory minimums and close private prisons 
(largely a product of the influence of the Bernie Sanders campaign) 
gained little air time compared to xenophobic patriotic appeals. In 
Clinton’s acceptance speech, the need to “reform our criminal justice 
system from end to end” was a throwaway, buried in a lengthy laundry 
list of promises on all issues. At the moment of realpolitik, ending 
mass incarceration has perhaps lost any capacity to attract new voters, 
especially whites who may be vacillating in their support for Trump.

Changes in Federal Laws

Election related party polarization has likely contributed to the lack 
of progress 
in advancing national legislation and policy change as well. The 
much-publicized Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act 
jointly sponsored by a bipartisan cohort led by Republican Chuck 
Grassley and Democrat Cory Booker, has failed to make it to the 
congressional floor for a vote. The bill remains mired in disagreements 
over the depth and nature of acceptable change.

Another high-profile reform, the opening of presidential clemency 
petitions, has also made little progress. Obama’s decision to open the 
door to federal clemency petitions prompted more than 12,000 
applications. However, to date only 562 
have been granted 
The lack of administrative resources to review the often complicated 
documents means the bulk of those remaining may be rolled over to the 
next presidency. Moreover, Obama rejected the more powerful option of 
applying a blanket amnesty to certain categories of convictions like the 
notoriously anti-black 
<http://www.drugpolicy.org/race-and-drug-war> crack cocaine laws. In the 
1970s, Presidents Ford and Carter applied blanket amnesties to those who 
dodged the draft.

A final glitch in the reform process has hit the realm of immigration. 
While the president made major advances with the DACA and DAPA 
measures to delay deportations, in 2016 things have taken a serious turn 
for the worse. A June Supreme Court decision 
virtually overturned DAPA, thus putting another five million 
undocumented adults back onto the hit list for possible deportation.

To make matters worse, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has begun a 
new offense of roundups. From across the country, reports 
have emerged of ICE agents showing up at unexpected places—courthouses, 
probation offices, workplaces—to drag away those without proper papers. 
Investigative journalist Brian Dolinar, who covers these issues in the 
Midwest, reports to AlterNet that there have been more than 50 ICE raids 
alone in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, a liberal college town of 120,000. 
He adds that such raids are “taking place all over the country, not just 
along the border, but they are happening under the radar with little or 
no media coverage.”

The Brighter Side

While at the federal level things may have slowed, a few important 
changes continue to take place where it really matters: at the state and 
local levels. Although the federal policies and debates attract the most 
media attention, state prisons and county jails hold nearly 90 percent 
of those incarcerated. Ultimately, most reforms at the federal level 
have little impact on states and counties, save to set an example of 
possible changes.

The most noteworthy advances have been the slashing prison populations 
in key states. New York, New Jersey, California and Rhode Island have 
their prison populations by more than 20 percent in the last seven 
years. The decarceration formula has varied. New York’s reductions were 
largely driven by a cutback in drug prosecutions, while California’s 
decrease came about as a result of a federal court order. But these 
states are not alone. In 2014, Mississippi, using a combination of 
sentencing and parole reform, reduced its prison population by 14.5 
percent in one year. Moreover, since 2000, at least 29 states have 
laws to reduce mandatory minimums. More than 30 such measures have been 
signed into law in the past six years. Despite the slow advance of 
national legislation, the federal prison population finally began to 
show a decline on 2013 after more than 35 years of growth. Obama’s 
November 2015 release contributed to a fall in federal prison 
populations of 16,000 (about 8 percent) in the last 19 months.

Outside the legislative sphere, national efforts via a number of 
non-government initiatives have kept things moving. These have included 
longstanding campaigns like Ban the Box 
initiated largely by organizations of formerly incarcerated people like 
All of Us or None 
<http://www.prisonerswithchildren.org/our-projects/allofus-or-none/> and 
efforts by the National Juvenile Justice Network to end juvenile life 
sentences without parole. New initiatives and organizations continue to 
appear with groups like the National Council for Incarcerated and 
Formerly Incarcerated Women 
focusing on the much-neglected 700 
<https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0ahUKEwjqpPW0x5rOAhVn3IMKHbrmCYIQFggkMAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.sentencingproject.org%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2016%2F02%2FIncarcerated-Women-and-Girls.pdf&usg=AFQjCNE9Zh24Gf1MsKVOVKEcNa7EAcB0DA&sig2=PxUnaK667-FeMiAaBobeow&cad=rja> expansion 
of the population in women’s prisons over the last two and a half decades.

Foundations and professional organizations have stepped in to fund 
reform as well. The Annie E. Casey foundation is supporting alternatives 
to incarceration <http://www.aecf.org/work/juvenile-justice/> for 
juveniles, and the Pre-Trial Institute is coordinating efforts to 
restructure pre-trial regimes, especially in regard to cash bail. 
Efforts to restructure local criminal justice practice aimed at reducing 
prison and jail populations have drawn tens of millions in support from 
the ACLU 
and the Macarthur Foundation 

Yet while these pockets of change and funding flows hold out promise, 
the total decrease <http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=5387> 
in prison population nationally from 2009 to 2014 was only about 
52,000—just over 2 percent. Ultimately, to totally reverse the forces of 
mass incarceration requires not only legislative change and finance, but 
the presence of a coordinated and focused mass social movement. The 
roots of such a movement have appeared over the past two years in the 
mobilizations in response police killings of black people. Elements of 
the youthful supporters of Bernie Sanders’ “political revolution” also 
represent such a potential force, though it remains to be seen what 
direction they will take post Hillary’s nomination.

Some activists argue that these efforts, especially those focused on 
police killings, need to broaden their scope to a more systemic 
perspective or run the risk of being confined to limited reforms such as 
body cams, community review board initiatives, or racial awareness 
training. The failure to successfully prosecute Darren Wilson in 
Ferguson and the perpetrators in the Freddie Gray case highlights the 
obstacles to investing too much faith in existing political processes. 
Gus Wood, an Illinois-based activist and PhD candidate, has studied 
policing extensively. He told AlterNet that “as we attempt to transform 
this current moment to an actual social movement, we must incorporate a 
systemic racial class analysis so that we can attack the various forms 
of racial oppression, like wage/income disparity, 
hypersegregation/apartheid, state-sponsored violence, imperialism, and 
mass incarceration. Our resistance must match the complexity of our 

“A Vision for Black Lives,” a set of policy documents 
<https://policy.m4bl.org/platform/> released August 1 by the Movement 
for Black Lives reflects the kinds of systemic thinking highlighted by 
Wood. The expanded directions put forward by the “Movement” take protest 
against police violence well beyond minor tweakings of police practice 
and attitudes. Situating police violence in the context of the 
historical and global oppression of black people, these documents call 
for reparations, international solidarity and economic justice while 
remaining true to the prioritization of leadership of queer and 
transgender people. More than 50 organizations, including Black Lives 
Matter Network, took part in formulating the contents.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, echoed such sentiments 
in responding to the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In a 
recent Facebook posting, she declared: “I no longer believe that we can 
'fix' the police, as though the police are anything other than a mirror 
reflecting back to us the true nature of our democracy. We cannot 'fix' 
the police without a revolution of values and radical change to the 
basic structure of our society… There’s an unfinished revolution waiting 
to be won.”

Ultimately, the momentum for criminal justice reform, let alone the type 
transformative change needed to reverse mass incarceration, remains far 
from achieving the intensity of the conservative “lock 'em up and throw 
away the key” mania that grew the system in the 1980s and '90s. As we 
draw nearer to election day, concerns about excessive imprisonment and 
bloated corrections budgets are likely to fade further into the shadows 
behind political candidates’ efforts to malign their opponents’ 
character and cast themselves as the true patriots. That unfinished 
revolution of which Michelle Alexander speaks still waits to be won.

James Kilgore is an activist, writer and educator based in Urbana, IL. 
His most recent book is Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s 
Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time 
<http://thenewpress.com/books/understanding-mass-incarceration> (New 
Press, 2015). He is also the author of three published novels, all of 
which he drafted during his six and a half years in prison. He can be 
found on Twitter @waazn1 <https://twitter.com/waazn1?lang=en>.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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