This Week in Mass Incarceration: March on Washington, Cory Booker on Prison Reform, and more

The Brennan Center regularly compiles the latest news concerning mass incarceration and the ongoing need for criminal justice reform. Here's a roundup of this week's top stories.

August 30, 2013

The Brennan Center regularly compiles the latest news concerning mass incarceration and the ongoing need for criminal justice reform. This week attention focused on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where luminaries such as President Obama, former President Clinton, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) spoke about the history, changes, and future for civil rights. The sole surviving speaker from the August 1963 March, Lewis directly addressed racial disparities in the current justice system: "The scars and stings of racism still remain deeply embedded in American society...whether it is stop-and-frisk in New York, the injustice of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, the mass incarceration of millions of Americans...or the renewed struggle for voting rights."

For ongoing updates on this event or on the mass incarceration news below, follow #MarchOnWashington, #MLKDream50#massincarceration, and #prisonreform on Twitter.

  • The New York City Independent Budget Office released a study on the demographics of Gotham’s prison population. Their research unearthed a statistic that is alarming to any criminal justice reform or fiscal responsibility advocate: In 2012, the City spent $167,731 to house each inmate. That number is more than double the average American salary. The budget office noted that 76 percent of inmates were merely waiting for their cases to be “disposed.” If the City sped up its settlement process and released just ten of those inmates, it could buy about 11,980,785 pencils—11 for each of the city’s approximately 1.1 million public schoolchildren.
  • In California, where the Supreme Court ruled the prisons to be unconstitutionally overwhelmed, Gov. Jerry Brown announced a plan to rectify the problem that would cost $315 million. His proposal would not release any prisoners; instead it would merely move them to private prisons (including some outside California), county jails, and “other facilities.” However, moving prisoners into private prisons does not necessarily save money. Last year, Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal was met with strong bipartisan opposition who viewed this as a bad financial move. California’s state senate offered an alternate plan, which creates financial incentives to promote rehabilitation, drug, and mental health treatment programs as a way to reduce recidivism. Brown reiterated that regardless of the crime or the health and public safety risk of the prisoner, his state would not be releasing any prisoners.
  • Newark mayor and Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Cory Booker announced a plan Wednesday to reform the criminal justice system based in part on measures he instituted in Newark. “One of the biggest wastes of taxpayer dollars in our society today can be found in a criminal justice system in serious need of reform,” Booker said. To that end, he laid out a plan to, among other things, decrease imprisonment for nonviolent offenders, decrease recidivism, and “modernize the way we incarcerate.” Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz shared a similar sentiment in this week’s New York Times: “Our incarceration rate is the world’s highest, although there are signs, finally, that fiscally strapped states are starting to see the folly, if not the inhumanity, of wasting so much human capital through mass incarceration.”
  • In Anderson County, Tennessee, commissioners have decided to charge prisoners for their jail stays, including for even the most rudimentary items like toilet paper (29 cents per roll) and pants ($9.15). As budgets tighten nationwide, this “pay to stay” model is spreading. Whether or not this actually saves the jurisdiction money is in dispute, as those who tend to be incarcerated tend to be indigent. UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich also pointed out on NPR that these fees and fines can lead to people being re-incarcerated due to nonpayment, which just winds up costing taxpayers more money.