Reducing U.S. Incarceration Rates

A CAP event addresses the U.S. incarceration rate, its relation to drug crime, and how to reduce it.


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“I didn’t go to law school to put anyone in prison who it wouldn’t do him–and those on the outside–any good,” said Paul Butler, author of Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice, at a panel on the failures of the criminal justice system held at the Center for American Progress last Wednesday. But according the Butler, that’s exactly what he found himself doing when he was a federal prosecutor.

Butler was joined on the panel by Glenn Ivey, the state attorney for Prince George’s County, Maryland. Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page moderated the panel following introductory remarks by the Center’s Joy Moses, a Policy Analyst in its poverty program.

The panelists discussed current criminal justice system problems, including the number of people imprisoned in the United States and the drug laws that put the majority of inmates behind bars. Butler explained that the incarceration rate was concerning because it moved independently of the crime rate—the number of people in prison has risen regardless of the number of crimes committed.

“Massive incarceration is a huge problem,” explained Ivey, but finding a solution is not an easy task. In his view simply releasing many of the inmates is not a viable solution because “opening the gates is not what the public wants.” Ivey was also skeptical of proposals that do not take into account the interests of the incarcerated and those on the outside. “We have got to find a way to walk and chew gum—to deal with both aspects of the issues,” he said.

Butler described the “stop snitching” movement to reduce incarcerations, which he called a “patriotic movement.” It has gained national attention over the past 10 years as rappers and other members of the hip-hop community began to express support for the tactic. The movement encourages criminal informants to stop “snitching” or cooperating with law enforcement in criminal cases. Butler spoke only in defense of its use in nonviolent drug crimes, arguing that it should not be used to protect violent offenders.

There are also pragmatic concerns with using criminal informants who are given rewards or more lenient sentences for their testimony. “People who get some reward for telling about someone else’s crime don’t make the most reliable cases,” Butler said.

Ivey was concerned how this would be put into practice. “Communities that have drug problems are banging our doors down to get more cops to do something about it,” he said, expressing concern that not serving as an informant wouldn’t make the problems go away.

The two panelists also disagreed on the issue of jury nullification, with Butler suggesting a form of civil disobedience in which jury members vote not guilty in nonviolent drug crimes even if the evidence suggests that the accused is guilty. Ivey, who has had experience with jury nullification in Prince George’s County, said, “I don’t really see it helping with the problem.”

Butler and Ivey agreed on some ways to reduce the number of people in prison, including the importance of getting involved early in the lives of children. “It is not hard to predict who is at risk or who is going to commit a crime,” said Ivey. He advocated for early intervention in these cases, targeting kids who live in communities that need help. “If you help parents become better parents, that works better than a draconian system of law that locks people up,” he said.

Rethinking drug policy is another possible way to tackle the problem. Butler argued that “drugs should be seen as a public health issue, not a criminal issue.” Ivey stressed that “when the drug markets shut down, the violence stops.”

New solutions are needed to reduce the U.S. prisons population, according to Ivey. “Right now, cops are doing the same stuff because they don’t know what else to do,” he said. Let’s Get Free provides some possible ways to approach the problem. Finding a solution that keeps our communities safe and their members out of prison will require more conversations like Wednesday’s.

For more on this event please visit the events page.

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