Event Summary: U.S. Criminal Justice System – August 27, 2014 (Boston)

Moira Pulitzer-Kennedy • August 28, 2014 • Boston, Event Summary

On Wednesday, August 27th, the Civic Series moved to Workbar Boston, and welcomed Professor Bruce Western to discuss the U.S. prison system. Prof. Western is the Director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Professor of Sociology at Harvard University. He is also the Co-Founder of the Prison Studies Project. Prof. Western’s research broadly examines the relationship between political institutions and social and economic inequality. He has longstanding interests in criminal justice policy, incarceration, and the effects of incarceration on poor communities.

After being introduced by Laur Fisher, the Civic Series founder, Prof. Western shared his excitement for the mission of the Series, and noted that he was especially delighted to have been invited to speak, because of the Kennedy School’s work on reaching beyond its walls and presenting current research to the public. Throughout his talk, he provided not only a thorough overview of the state of mass incarceration in the U.S., but also a compassionate presence – which revealed his deep commitment to justice and policy reform within and around this system.

To frame the discussion, Prof. Western described the landscape of U.S. incarceration, arguing that the incarceration boom in the last fifty years marked the beginning of a new chapter in the institutional landscape of American poverty. He shared that the United States has the world’s densest prison population – 700 out of 100,000 Americans are incarcerated, compared to 100 out of 100,000 in Western Europe. Following most closely behind the U.S. are Russia, Rwanda, Ukraine, and the Republic of Georgia. While the U.S. makes up 5% of the world’s population, it accounts for 25% of world’s prisoners. Further, the increase in incarceration in the United States has done little to decrease crime; Prof. Western noted that a 1% increase in incarceration results in a 0.1% reduction in crime, though there is little scientific agreement about the specific effects of incarceration on the crime rate.

Though the upsurge in incarceration is itself an issue, Prof. Western spoke in depth about its profoundly unequal distribution across, most notably, gender, education, and race. While 35% of African-American men under the age of 35 who didn’t finish high school have been incarcerated, only 8-9% of white men with the same level of education (incomplete high school) are. And 0.3% of college-educated white men of the same age are in prisons or jails in the U.S. Prof. Western also explained that the inequality of incarceration is:

  • Invisible (real employment figures, which take into account incarcerated populations, reveal that there has been no economic improvement for African-American men since the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Act was passed);
  • Cumulative (it’s significantly more challenging to get work after being incarcerated);
  • Intergenerational (2 million children in the U.S. have a parent in prison or jail and are more likely to be incarcerated themselves).

After presenting these facts and figures, Prof. Western delved deeply into the philosophical questions. He asserted that mass incarceration amounts to a contraction in citizenship. Further, there is a “deep gap in legitimacy,” wherein police and prisons have completely lost the confidence of marginalized communities – as has been powerfully highlighted by recent events in Ferguson, MO. This contraction of citizenship and gap in legitimacy are, for him, elements of vicious cycle.

For Prof. Western, the question then becomes: how do we break the vicious cycle? He shared that policy makers are now in an active conversation about policy reform. In its current state, incarceration is all about outsiders and is based fundamentally on the principle of retribution. When someone becomes incarcerated, he or she instantly becomes an outsider, and life is about the struggle for agency and dignity. Ultimately, Prof. Western argues that for real change to take place, outsiders need to be reconceived as insiders, and insiders, like him, must see something of themselves in the citizens-to-be. We need big compassion in order to find a way out, he asserted. We need to see clearly what makes each of us truly human – the co-existence of the capacity to change, and the possibility of failure. With formerly incarcerated persons, there is both the hope that they can change, alongside the possibility that they will fail to do so.

Given all this, Prof. Western posed a challenge to every person in the room: That we each come to know and understand how crime can flourish, to see the darkest corners of society, to acknowledge the struggles of the invisible and glimpse how life is lived on the margins. Only then, when we see our own humanity reflected, will real change be possible.

After his charge to the group, Prof. Western took questions. It was clear that people from all backgrounds and levels of knowledge were present. One attendee generously shared that he had been incarcerated in the past, and talked a bit about his experience and what life has been like after.

Another participant let people know about opportunities to join grassroots efforts, including:

  • Jobs Not Jails Campaign: http://jobsnotjails.org/jnj/
  • Bail Fund: http://www.cjpc.org/BailFund.htm
  • Prisoners’ Legal Services: http://www.plsma.org/

Please get in touch with Laur at laur@thecivicseries.com if you’d like host a Civic Series!


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