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Judge Judith Colenback Savage joined Roger Williams University School of Law in 2014 as Distinguished Jurist in Residence. This spring, she is teaching "Criminal Procedure: Adjudication" and "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness," a Perspectives course based on the...

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Sounding the Alarm on Mass Incarceration

Posted by Judith Savage on 03/24/2015 at 10:24 AM

Mass IncarcerationThis Friday, March 27, an extraordinary gathering will take place here at RWU Law to discuss mass incarceration and mass probation -- one of the most important public policy issues of our time.

A sizeable cross-section of the Rhode Island community – including members of the bench and bar, law professors and law students, local and national experts, a host of stakeholders and citizens – will come together for a timely symposium titled “Sounding the Alarm on Mass Incarceration: Moving Beyond the Problem and Toward Solutions.” The event calls upon us to reexamine an inordinately expensive criminal justice system that has incarcerated a greater percentage of its citizens – especially Blacks and Latinos – than any other country in the world.

Since the beginning of this academic year, I have worked with passionate RWU Law students in planning and convening the symposium, as part of a seminar built around the groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander (The New Press, 2012). This is fitting, I believe – because society will be looking to the next generation of lawyers to solve this pervasive problem.

And pervasive it is. Consider the following facts:

  • The United States is the world’s leading jailer. Our country has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners.
  • Our rate of incarceration is historic. 2.2 million Americans are currently incarcerated – that’s an increase of 500% over the last 40 years.
  • We imprison disproportionately. One out of every three African-American males born today, and one out of every six Latino males, is likely to be incarcerated during their lifetimes. Most prisoners are poor, undereducated, and underemployed.
  • The costs are staggering. The correctional system in America is an $80 billion enterprise.  The cost to our communities and individual lives is incalculable.
  • Mass incarceration has not made us safer. Mass incarceration is the result of changes in policy, not an increase in crime.  In recent years, a number of states have successfully reduced incarceration while maintaining reductions in crime.
  • And in Rhode Island … we also have mass probation. More than 24,000 of our state’s citizens are currently on probation – that’s the third highest probation rate in the country – making it harder for them to educate themselves, obtain jobs, and acquire the full benefits of citizenship.  We also have one of the highest cost-per-offender rates in the United States.

Having identified the problems, however, it is incumbent upon us to move toward solutions.

The Symposium will provide a forum for collective conversation among those who care deeply about our criminal justice system. It will feature a broad array of Rhode Island voices. We will work together to examine the problems of mass incarceration and mass probation and begin to explore opportunities for change.

Our keynote address – “American Injustice: Mercy, Humanity and Making a Difference” – will be delivered by Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative; Professor of Clinical Law, New York University School of Law; and author of Just Mercy.

Our featured speaker Marc Mauer – Executive Director of The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C. and author of Race to Incarcerate and Invisible Punishment – will address the symposium on the “Race to Incarcerate: The Causes and Consequences of Mass Incarceration.”

Add in students hosting community organizations, fireside chats and a PowerPoint presentation and discussion of the Rhode Island picture of mass incarceration and mass probation, and it promises to be a fascinating, sobering and extremely thought-provoking day. (See the day's full Agenda.)

Thank you to everyone who registered to attend – and see you at the Symposium!