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April 18, 2014

Should Prez Obama create a "Presidential Commission on Mass Incarceration"? Who should be on it?

The questions in the title of this post are prompted by one of the executive actions suggested earlier this week the Brennan Center for Justice in this new report titled "15 Executive Actions to Overcome Government Dysfunction."  Notably, as listed here, at least three of the suggested actions are focused on criminal justice matters that should be of special interest to sentencing fans:

9. Create a Presidential Commission on Mass Incarceration, modeled after the “Kerner Commission.”

10. Issue an executive order directing federal agencies to recast their criminal justice grants in a Success-Oriented Funding model.

11. Direct the Justice Department to identify federal prisoners to whom the Fair Sentencing Act would retroactively apply, and recommend commutations for all those eligible, barring exceptional circumstances.

The first proposal of these three struck me as especially novel and interesting, and here is part of the full report's discussion of the proposal:

With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of its prisoners.  More than 2 million Americans are behind bars.  A quarter of the nation’s adult population has a criminal record.  The prison population has increased sevenfold since 1970. The country spends a quarter of a trillion dollars a year on criminal justice, but true costs are wider: Economic and social impacts on families and children can continue for generations.  The explosion in our correctional population extends far beyond prison: pre-trial detention, parole and probation supervision, and those with arrest records.

Public safety does not compel incarceration of this scope.  More than half of prisoners are serving time for drug or nonviolent crimes.   One in four new prison admissions are for violations of parole. 106 One in five people behind bars are simply awaiting trial. 

Yet, the epidemic of mass incarceration hides in plain sight.  Most Americans are unaware of it.  Those who are aware are not mobilized to act.

Progressives and conservatives have begun to seek action. Several states have taken up reforms in recent years. Momentum is increasing in Washington.  Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the “Smart on Crime” initiative, calling for federal prosecutors to seek harsh sentences only for the most serious drug traffickers and other reforms. 

These federal and states fixes, however, have been piecemeal rather than systemic.  Full change is not possible without wide public support.  Mass incarceration must be identified as a national problem requiring national attention.  Though jurisdictions vary in the minutia of their justice systems, the overall drivers of the incarceration explosion are similar across the country.  

Federal legislation to create a national commission on criminal justice has failed to pass repeatedly.  This year, Congress created the Chuck Colson Task Force, named after the founder of Prison Fellowship.  It will aim to study the federal prison system to alleviate overcrowding.  A similar assessment should be made of the far broader problem.

The president can help make mass incarceration visible by creating a National Commission on Mass Incarceration of leading bipartisan policymakers and civic leaders.  He can do so through an executive order or a presidential memorandum.  And he can avail himself of a high profile venue, such as a commencement address, to announce the commission.  

Such a panel could be modeled after the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, Jr.).  President Lyndon B. Johnson created the “Kerner Commission” to study the causes of urban riots.  The National Commission on Mass Incarceration should similarly study the current drivers of the growth in federal and state prison and jail populations.  It should examine the accompanying economic and societal toll. And, it should issue concrete policy recommendations to achieve a measureable goal — for example, cutting the nationwide incarcerated population by 25 percent by 2025.

Proposals should focus on “front-end” changes that help stem the influx of people into the pipeline to prison.

The Kerner Commission’s members included New York City Mayor John Lindsay, Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Litton Industry founder Charles Thornton, NAACP head Roy Wilkins, and Atlanta police chief Herbert Turner Jenkins.  These prominent public figures helped bring national attention to the issue of race.  The National Commission on Mass Incarceration should include similar public and civic leaders.  Such a commission would draw the nation’s attention to this overlooked issue and, most importantly, catalyze action.

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear I like both the style and substance of this proposal. Thus, to answer my own post-title question, I do think Prez Obama should create a Presidential Commission on Mass Incarceration. (And, of course, I think I should be on this Commission along with Bill Otis and perhaps many other (but not all other) frequent commenters on this blog.)

April 18, 2014 at 05:19 PM | Permalink


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Literally, this is impossible, because the lawyer sets the policy.

“Smart on Crime” initiative

Even with an astronomical IQ, even with a scientific background, the law education has made he lawyer a real dumbass.

For example, basing any decision on the adjudicated charge is to base it on a fictitious charge.

To say, drug dealers are non-violent offenders requires a recent arrival from another planet. Drug dealers killed thousands in the US and hundreds of thousands in Mexico.

To say, public safety can be maintained by loosing thousands of prison hardened thugs into our family neighborhoods, that is truly insane, and totally irresponsible.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 18, 2014 9:25:41 PM

"...many other (but not all other) frequent commenters on this blog.)" (should be on this Commission.)

Yes, any advocate for the real interests of crime victims, including property owners, losing up to the entire value of their property from nearby crime, should be shunned, excluded, and silenced.

Yes, any advocate who has not accepted the indoctrination of the criminal cult enterprise, should be shunned, excluded, and silenced.

Yes, any advocate for the effective ending of crime, and the resulting loss of lawyer make work government jobs, should be shunned, excluded, and silenced.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 18, 2014 9:39:13 PM

Children of murder victims & parents of rape victims.

Posted by: Adamakis | Apr 19, 2014 10:29:53 AM

Who should be on it? Well, any catholic who has been forced to go to Mass and be locked up in that cathedral with all the old farts doing their thing.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Apr 19, 2014 11:37:47 AM

I'd have to say "none of the above" all would be totally biased against the people the group was there to do something about.

Pretty much a kangaroo court as it were.

Posted by: rodsmith | Apr 19, 2014 7:06:44 PM

People who should be on the commission: Scientists and researchers who understand the difference between anecdotes and data and the difference between correlation and causation. People who recognize that freedom should be a right and not a gift from the government, and that its deprivation is not a trivial circumstance.

It's a lot easier to see who should NOT be on the commission: Politicians. Crime victims and victim rights advocates. Actual criminals. Judges. Entertainers. Anyone associated with prisons or the private prison industry. Probation and parole officers. Law enforcement officials. Anyone associated in any way with the United States Sentencing Commission. I'm sure I could come up with some more.

Posted by: C.E. | Apr 19, 2014 9:32:34 PM

I agree with C.E. in the comment above. I would exclude anyone associated with the cat o lic church. Go to some cat o lic church on any Sunday and witness the Mass incarceration. They cry in there. They pray to get out. When they get out they cross themselves. When they get home they eat like all get out. They praise the Lard on Sunday and on Monday they praise Crisco. Mass incarceration is a sight to behold.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Apr 20, 2014 2:13:54 PM

Bill Otis?

Posted by: Grotius | Apr 20, 2014 3:01:58 PM

How about, "none of the Above"?

Posted by: Allison Williams Esq. | May 14, 2014 1:27:36 AM

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