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Let's End Out-of-Mind Mass Incarceration

Crime and punishment is not part of the political debate and it should be. A presidential commission could be a start.

May 22, 2014

Visually, the four-minute video shows nothing more than Reginald Adams, a thin 61-year-old man, sitting with his mother on a floral couch in a modest home just outside New Orleans. But what makes the taped snippet so memorable is its understated message of joy and tragedy -- Adams was released from prison earlier this month after serving 34 years for a murder that he did not commit. 

"Look, I'm free," Adams told the New Orleans Advocate in the video in a calm, soft voice. "For being there 34 years, I don't think anything outside can get on my nerves." Anticipating the obvious question, Adams went on to say, "How would you feel like after 34 years for something you didn't do? I can't afford to sit around worrying about that...I'm out. And that's all that matters to me."

Advocate columnist James Gill called Adams' conviction "the most flagrant stitch-up ever perpetrated in the 30 years Harry Connick spent as New Orleans DA." The only evidence against Adams was a confession extracted after long hours of questioning with the aid of beer and Valium -- in which the purported murderer got all the details of the crime wrong. New Orleans prosecutors also withheld from the defense at the 1983 murder trial the exonerating detail that the police had found the gun used in the murder and the weapon had no connection to Adams.

The Adams case was far from the only miscarriage of justice in New Orleans during the era when Connick (yes, he is the father of the singer) was DA. The Innocence Project of New Orleans, which championed Adams' release, estimates that there were at least 31 cases where the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence. And, sadly, this kind of law enforcement is not an only-in-the-bayou problem. Based on reporting by the New York Times, more than four dozen murder cases in Brooklyn are being reviewed on suspicion of coerced confessions.  

The story of Reginald Adams -- even though it reflects larger problems -- is the one that touches my heart. Thirty-four years in Louisiana state prison in Angola making license plates. Behind bars from the flush of youth to the last wisps of middle age. A prisoner as history turned from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, from the end of Communism to 9/11 and beyond. All as punishment for nothing -- except for the crime of being gullible late at night in a New Orleans station house more than three decades ago.

Running for president in 1932 in the depths of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt spoke passionately about "the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid." But these days, the truly forgotten men and women are the 2.3 million Americans in prison, a population larger than that of Houston or New Mexico.

Of course, unlike Reginald Adams, almost all of these prisoners were convicted in legally valid fashion. But that does not mean that prison conditions should be ignored. Or that the sometimes draconian and often arbitrary laws that produced long sentences should be accepted as an unalterable fact of 21st century life.

The 2014 congressional campaigns illustrate the current out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitudes about the more than two million Americans behind bars. Ever since Richard Nixon pioneered the law-and-order campaigns of the late 1960s (with a little help from George Wallace), crime has been a constant in American politics. No candidate whether Republican or Democrat (remember Bill Clinton's 1992 fulfilled campaign promise to fund 100,000 cops on the beat) could run for national office without detailed proposals on how to get tough on crime.

Until now. An impromptu survey of the websites of House candidates from Tea Party firebrands to populist left-wingers failed to detect a single reference to the crime issue. Everything else is there: the economy, the deficit, healthcare, energy, immigration, national security (sometimes) and -- depending on party -- either family values or reproductive rights. But, in politics, crime has taken a holiday.

This neglect would be fine if it were benign. But what it means is that America continues to lock up one-quarter of the world's prisoners without any form of national debate. Since the tough-on-crime days of the Nixon era, the nation's prison population has increased by seven times.

For many middle-class and affluent Americans, these statistics are abstractions. Prison life, when it is imagined at all, is seen through the prism of sexually charged TV dramas. The public's underlying attitude appears to be that mass incarceration is the price that Americans have to pay for a life free of the fear of armed robberies and muggings.

This calculus is dubious at best. Especially since many of these prisoners are behind bars for reasons related to the nation's failed war on drugs.

In case you were too stoned to notice, when it comes to soft drugs, the times they are a-changin'. Voters in states like Colorado have made clear that they believe that legalized marijuana is an integral part of the pursuit of happiness. But even as a belated burst of rationality is coming to the national anti-drug campaign (lessening, for example, the discrepancies in sentencing for crack and cocaine), these changed attitudes do little for those convicted during the era of get-tough prosecutors and grandstanding politicians.

What is needed is a way to change the current national mood that might be summarized as, "Look away, dear. Those people are wearing orange jumpsuits." It is morally indefensible that America has 2.3 million prisoners -- and, for the most part, we refuse to even talk about it.

That is why I am attracted to the recent Brennan Center proposal calling on Obama to appoint a National Commission on Mass Incarceration. The model is the Kerner Commission on civil disorders appointed by Lyndon Johnson after the 1967 riots in Detroit. Its 1968 report ("Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal") was a bombshell, as urban Democrats like its chairman Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner acknowledged white racism and its doleful consequences.

In a different era, there is no guarantee that a White House commission on prisons would cut through the media clutter. The 1997 presidential Advisory Board on Race failed to spark the dialogue that Bill Clinton had hoped for. But both the 9/11 commission and the Simpson-Bowles commission on the deficit left their imprints on the nation. 

(I will be chairing a Brennan Center panel on "15 Executive Actions," including the commission on mass incarceration, in Washington on May 28).

All this brings me back to Reginald Adams and his simple yet haunting line, "I'm out. And that's all that matters to me." That is life in America in 2014 -- a free country with 2.3 million citizens behind bars.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

(Photo: Flickr)