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The Daily Need

The politics of punishment: Q&A with prison-reform advocate Marc Mauer

This week, we look at Texas and the bipartisan efforts that have spurred widely admired prison reforms. I spoke to Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project and one of the country’s leading prison-reform advocates, to get his take on the impact of prison growth and reform in the U.S.

Tamy Cozier: During the 1990s, the nation’s crime rate dipped by 30 percent to its lowest levels in 35 years. During that tine, we also saw growing police forces, stricter drug laws and harsher sentencing. Don’t the numbers prove that a tough-on-crime approach works?

Marc Mauer

Marc Mauer: No. There were many developments that came around the 1990s that collectively contributed to reduction in crime. Part of that was the waning of the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and the violence that was associated with that.

Some of that [decline in crime] was due to more strategic policing, a better economy in the 1990s and better job opportunities for people who might have otherwise gotten involved in crime. And yes, some of that had to do with more people in prison, although research on that suggests that only about something in the range of 10 to 25 percent of the decline in crime was due to more incarceration. But, to the extent that prison had some impact on crime, that doesn’t tell us that [increased incarceration] is the most cost effective, let alone humane, way to address the problem.

Cozier: A growing number of states are moving toward the privatization of prisons. But do private prisons actually save states money?

Mauer: There is no evidence that private prisons on the whole are less expensive than public prisons. There are some studies that show modest savings. There are other studies that show, actually, it costs a little more in privatization on the whole. Reports from the GAO [General Accounting Office] and other sophisticated researchers show there is very little advantage and there’s significant disadvantages to contracting for private prisons. It means prisoners are more likely to be shipped out of state far from their families when they are incarcerated. There’s less public oversight of what goes on in private prisons. And, there’s a history of significant problems in many of the privatization contracts that states have engaged in over the last two decades.

Cozier: You write about the “collateral consequences of mass incarceration.” Can you explain what you mean?

Mauer: Sure. Well, when a person is sentenced to go to prison, in the courtroom that day there’s a host of other people that are impacted by that decision. For a start, most of the people in prison are parents. So, today there are 1.7 million children who have a parent who’s in prison as we speak. Because of the racial dynamics of incarceration, those figures are particularly high in the African-American community where one in every 14 black children has a mother or father behind bars. So, for the children who have not committed any crime themselves, they have to deal with the loss of financial and psychological support from a parent, the shame and stigma that goes along with incarceration and it can often lead to problems for them in school, with their peers and other situations.

Large-scale incarceration can also be very disruptive to low-income communities in particular where people are cycling in and out of prison on a very regular basis and it means that these sort of informal networks of social control or role models in a community become very disjointed. …The effect of incarceration goes well beyond the individual being sentenced to prison, but affects that person’s life prospects as well his or her family and community as well.

Cozier: We are hearing of states like California that are releasing prisoners early as a way of dealing with overcrowded prisons and shrinking budgets. Does this approach put communities at risk?

Mauer: I don’t think it does if it’s done properly. Far too many people are in prison today who don’t need to be for public safety, but are only there because policymakers haven’t developed sufficient options to supervise them in the community. So many of these people could appropriately be living home under some form of parole supervision where they would also get supportive services to help them become connected to employment, education and other opportunities. …So, I think the states now have an opportunity to develop mechanisms to supervise these people and provide services in a more comprehensive way that would also allow them to use some of the savings from reducing the cost of imprisonment as well.

Cozier: What are some politically palatable alternatives to incarceration?

Mauer: Well, there’s a range of options available for many lower level offenses. People are often sent to perform community service to sort of repay to the community or provide restitution to victims. There are now substantial movements to establish drug courts around the country to make treatment the first option for dealing with people with a substance abuse problem rather than making prison the first option. And, the idea behind that is that if that can be done successfully we may be able to reduce the amount of drug use and the amount of crimes that’s going on. So, it’s getting at the underlying issues there. So, there’s a variety of community corrections programs that are trying to get at many of the contributing factors to crime, which often involve substance abuse, mental health problems, physical and sexual abuse, poor educational outcomes — many of the failings of the institutions of our community that could be addressed through the court system once a person is being sentenced for a crime.

This interview has been condensed and edited.