Mass Incarceration. The New Jim Crow. The War on Drugs. Thanks to Professor Michelle Alexander these phrases are now intimately linked in the minds of social justice advocates and faith leaders as we begin a critical struggle for fairness, justice and human rights in the criminal courts, police precincts and prisons of America. The Next Movement is convinced that America can do better, and that the majority of Americans would want us to do better, if they knew the truth. The truth about systemic incarceration, structural second class status, completely uneven law enforcement practices, oppressive and selectively enforced laws that is filling the prisons of America.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Life. A typically positive word that captures the essence of the unique nature of our planet, and its place in the universe. 

Life. An organism that actively interacts with its environment and eagerly reproduces.

Life. As Lewis E. Lawes, warden of Sing Sing prison from 1920-1941 puts it, "Death fades into insignificance when compared with life imprisonment. To spend each night in jail, day after day, year after year, gazing at the bars and longing for freedom, is indeed expiation."

In an article in the Prison Legal News Days Without End: Life Sentences and Penal Reform, Marie Gottschalk digs deep into the almost uniquely American love affair with life sentences. Some important highlights:
  • One of every eleven prisoners in the U.S. is serving a life sentence, and a third of these are life without parole
  • The U.S. has approximately 141,000 people serving life sentences . . . TWICE the entire population of prisoners in Japan
  • The population of elderly inmates, in spite of the low possibility of them being re-incarcerated upon release, grew 77% from 1999 to 2007 -- even though the cost to imprison the elderly is three times that of a younger inmate, averaging $70,000 a year
  • Since the 1980's prison populations have quadrupled while the Life Without Parole population is 100 times greater than it was then!
  • Lifers have some of the lowest recidivism rates of any population - a study of 368 people convicted of murder who were granted parole in New York between 1999 and 2003 showed that only 6 returned to prison . . . less than 2%
As we look to halt the out of control growth in incarcerations, certain ending the War on Drugs is one of the areas of focus of many prison reform organizations, in fact one the The Next Movement considers critical. Marie makes an excellent argument that sentencing reform is just as critical, if not more so. From a report by William Sabol, the chief statistician for the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 1994 to 2006 13% of the growth in state prison populations was the result of drug offenders, while nearly two thirds was attributed to defendants convicted of violent crimes.

In the end, for those of us seeking to end mass incarceration, this article provides some valuable data points and clearly articulates the need for us to be holistic in our approach lest we have victories that are shallow and ultimately fail to correct the problem.

Daryle Brown

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