The Surprising Joys of Learning about Mass Incarceration


Who wants to think about all the sadness, and loss and implied violence associated with prisoners?

Well, it turns out you will.   Begin exploring the topic of mass incarceration.  You’ll meet authors with clear and mind-expanding stories to tell. You’ll rediscover your country and community in details which you’ll wish you had ‘seen’ long ago.  You will blow right past the aversion and reach a realistic and optimistic place –because there are solutions.  And next time somebody says “It is just so complex…” with the unspoken addendum “there is certainly nothing I can do about it”, you’ll be able to tell them 3 things they can do that make a difference.

Embracing it, learning its many contours has enriched my life and, surprisingly, has given me great hope.

If I give you a big long list of books, articles and events, you’ll never do anything with it.  So I’ll give you three suggestions now and others soon.

1.  “Just Mercy” a book by Bryan Stevenson is a great place to start.  This remarkable person shares his story, from interning as a law school student to arguing (and winning!) cases before the Supreme court. But don’t glaze over at the thought of all that lawyer business.  The real stories you will remember are the ones about the people whose cases drew him in.  Through those people we learn how the justice system that we assume to be moral and, well, “just”, can be systematically flawed but can also be adjusted.

2. If you are in the SF Bay Area, on Thursday Feb 9,  this year’s Able:Forum addresses this topic “Finding a Way Forward: Mass Incarceration, community Policing and the Effects on the Family.  For details click here.  It will be an active and insightful panel conversation with a local flavor. The panelists are exceptional people with varied perspectives.

  • George GascónSan Francisco District Attorney and former Chief of Police.
  • Frederick Hutson, founder, CEO and Head of Product for Pigeonly, a service which allows inmates to efficiently and affordably connect with their families and loved ones.
  • Pastor Michael McBride of The Way Christian Center in Berkeley, CA, who also serves as the Director of Urban Strategies for the PICO National Network andLiveFree, an organization committed to ending mass incarceration.
  • Heather Starnes-LogwoodExecutive Director of Live in Peace, a non-profit that seeks to empower and advance youth and families in East Palo Alto.

Full disclosure, I will be moderating the panel. Hope to see you there!

2.  If you want a short article to give you a view of the issues and possibilities today, the Wall Street Journal recently ran a very good article “A Better Approach to Violent Crime” by  John Pfaff that outlines why this is an issue that matters to conservatives as well as liberals and some of the successful ways to address it.  The article is only available to subscribers right now, but here are some of the key points.

Changing sentencing for non violent drug offenses addresses only 30% or so of the prison population:  To reduce the immense  negative societal and  fiscal impacts of mass incarceration, you have to address the causes and sentencing for violent crime

“If we are serious about ending mass incarceration in the U.S., we will have to figure out how to lock up fewer people who have committed violent acts and to incarcerate those we do imprison for less time.”

“There is an obvious rejoinder, of course: Don’t we need to keep people convicted of violence locked up for long periods? Isn’t this how we’ve kept the crime rate down for so long?

“The answer to both of those questions is, “No, not likely.” Simply put, long prison sentences provide neither the deterrence nor the incapacitation effects that their proponents suggest.”

Pfaff includes real, validated program examples.

“One widely adopted approach is what experts call “focused deterrence,” …. the program brings gang members together with the police, social-service providers and respected members of the local community. They are told that if violence continues, the police will crack down quickly and severely. Those who agree to put violence behind them, however, are offered help with housing, education, drug and alcohol treatment and other services” Nine of the 10 high-quality studies that have been done on focused deterrence report strong impacts—a 63% decline in youth homicides in Boston, a 35% decline in murders among “criminally active group members” in Cincinnati and so on.”…

Re.  “Cure Violence”.  “Like focused deterrence, this approach also seeks to provide at-risk youth with access to resources, ranging from housing to entertainment. In New York City, a study conducted between 2010 and 2012 found that areas where Cure Violence operated had experienced 20% fewer shootings as compared with similar areas. Conversely, shootings in Chicago began to rise sharply shortly after a stalemate over the state budget resulted in a drastic cut in funding for Cure Violence in March 2015.”

All mothers have an interest in making our communities safe.  In the interest of all parents  let’s  stop fearing this issue.

More recommended reads on this soon!



Categories: All Posts, For Social Service Organizations, Poverty in the News

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