09/20/15 Doug McVay

This week we talk with Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, and Jason Ziedenberg, director of research and policy for the Justice Policy Institute, about mass incarceration and a new report on prisons in the US.

Century of Lies
Sunday, September 20, 2015
Doug McVay
Drug War Facts
Download: Audio icon COL092015.mp3



SEPTEMBER 20, 2015


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for decriminalization. Legalization. The end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello! And welcome to Century of Lies. I'm your host, Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. Century of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network.

Now, on with the show.

Recently the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics released its annual report on the nation's prison population, Prisoners in 2014. According to BJS, at the end of 2014 there were more than 1.5 million people held in state and federal prisons in the US – over 210 thousand in federal prisons and more than 1.35 million in state prisons. That's an imprisonment rate of 471 people per 100,000 population.

Notice I said “imprisonment rate,” not “incarceration rate.” There are more than 700,000 people held in jails in the US, for a total of more than two point two million people behind bars. The incarceration rate in the United States is about 700 people per one hundred thousand population. That's the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. That's one reason why over-criminalization and mass incarceration in the United States has become a major concern in the past few years.

Of course, it wasn't always this way. In 1980, a total of 305,458 people were being held in state prisons in the United States. Federal prisons that year held 24,363 people. Then came the Reagan era. Democrats and Republicans at the federal level and in the states began a bidding war to see who could appear to be tougher on crime and tougher on drug users. By 1990, a total of 708,383 people held in state prisons in the United States. Federal prisons held another 65,526.

By 2000, state prisons held nearly 1.2 million people, and the federal prison system had grown to hold more than 140,000. The federal prison population went over 200,000 by the end of 2009, and another 1.3 million people were being held in state prison.

To get a handle on these numbers, and how we got here, I spoke with Marc Mauer. Marc is the executive director of the Sentencing Project. He's been working on these issues for the past few decades, educating the public and policy makers about the mistake of mass incarceration, and he's also been advocating for reform.

MARC MAUER: In the most recent year, the federal prison populations declined, actually for the second year in a row. Previously, it had been rising at even a faster rate than state prison populations. I think it's fair to say if we look over the last decade or so, the numbers overall have increased but much less so than in the hay-day of the war on drugs tough on crime of the 1980s and 1990s, when we saw double-digit increases in some of those years.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, do the -- the state numbers, let's go back to those for just a moment. I know that California has been one of the states leading the way, largely because they've been ordered by the courts to reduce their prison population. Is -- do you think this is a real trend, a continuing trend? Is it, are states starting to run out of ideas for how to, you know, I mean, they've been throwing people into jails rather than prisons to bring the number in prisons down. Actually, let me back up for moment. Could you just quickly, for the benefit of my listeners, explain the difference between the jail and prison? I mean, as you said, this counts the number of prisoners, but the number of jail inmates is a different report.

MARC MAUER: Sure, yeah. Well, two-thirds of the people behind bars in the United States are in prison, state or federal prisons, where people are serving time for a felony conviction that sends them away for more than a year. About a third of the population behind bars nationally is in local jails, and this consists of people who've been arrested and are awaiting trial, but haven't been released on bail, or people serving relatively short sentences for misdemeanors or felonies of less than a year. And both these populations, prison and jail, have risen dramatically over the last 40 years.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, so, in terms of the different kinds of violations. People like to think that prisons are where we put very dangerous offenders. Obviously, the war on drugs turned that upside down, and so we got a lot of nonviolent folks. How has the, what's the basic proportion, what percent of the people inside are in on drug violations, and if you could even further, talk about the trends, how we're doing there?

MARC MAUER: Well, if we look at prisons, it's a very different picture between federal prisons and state prisons. The federal prisons are much smaller, they hold about 15 percent of the total prison population, but half the people in federal prisons are there for a drug offense, and a very small proportion are there for a violent offense, and this reflects the sort of ramped up nature of the war on drugs and federal prosecutions over the last thirty years or so.

In state prisons, the numbers are substantial but much less than federal, so today about one of every six people in state prison is incarcerated for a drug offense, and these proportions have actually been declining somewhat in the last several years or so, partly because we've seen the success of some diversion programs, treatment rather than incarceration, in some cases judges are much less inclined to put people in prison if substance abuse is the underlying problem. So the numbers are still huge, but they're not rising at the level that they were not that long ago.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, let's talk for a moment about overcrowding, because it would be one thing if we had sufficient room to hold all of these people who've been sentenced, but that's not really the case, in the federal or in a lot of the states. How are we doing as far as overcrowding?

MARC MAUER: Well, overcrowding is still a terrible problem in virtually every prison system in the country, that's what led the Supreme Court to declare the entire California prison system unconstitutional, because the level of crowding meant that they could not provide adequate healthcare to inmates, and the Supreme Court ordered the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 people over the last several years, so some of those people are now housed in local jails, many of them are being supervised in local communities. But we see this around the country, and it means that the conditions of confinement, which were never good to begin with, are now even more challenging, both for prisoners and for the guards. It means that the programming in prison, which has been limited as well, now there's essentially more competition for slots in programming. So whatever the reasons are we send people to prison, you know, the prospect of people changing themselves for the better while they're there, it's just increasingly difficult all around.

DOUG MCVAY: I know that you've been working on these issues for quite some time, your book "Race To Incarcerate" is over here on my bookshelf, it has an honored place. Can you talk to me for a moment about some of the racial disparities that we are seeing in prisons currently?

MARC MAUER: Well, we see enormous racial disparities. African Americans are incarcerated at a rate about 6 times that of whites, Latinos about two and a half times the rate of whites. If you break it down by race, age, gender, for black males in their thirties, about one of every ten is in a prison or jail on any given day, one in ten prison or jail. Just remarkable. You know, and as we know, suppose these figures were that one in ten white men in his thirties were in prison or jail, I think we'd have, you know, the president of the United States and members of Congress say this is a national emergency, we need to do something about this terrible problem, how can we solve this problem? We would see action very quickly.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, how do you think -- I hate to ask people to prognosticate, but what the heck, I've got you here. We do seem to see some momentum at the federal level, the states have also been talking about reducing prison populations, getting these under control. What kind of potential do you see for real change in sentencing law, for instance, over the next, well, over the next year or so, now Congress is back. There are bills on both the House and Senate side. Do you think they have any potential? I mean, obviously we're in this for the long haul, but -- yeah. What do you think?

MARC MAUER: We're at a moment right now when there's really an opportunity to make a difference in our sentencing policies. Over the last five years or so, we've seen liberals and conservatives coming together to critique the drug war, to critique excessive sentencing policies, excessive punishment, when it's not necessary for public safety. Five years ago, Congress passed a reform to the crack cocaine mandatory sentencing laws, reducing the disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. This year, there's significant activity in the US Senate, Senator Grassley of Iowa, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has announced that essentially any day now he will introduce a bipartisan package that will effect federal sentencing and federal prison programming. We'll see what that looks like, but we're encouraged that we're seeing this level of activity, and a number of states have also enacted sort of a reconsideration of mandatory sentencing, of drug policy sentencing, really rethinking that we shouldn't be proud of the fact that we have a world record prison population in the United States.

DOUG MCVAY: Well, terrific. Thank you. Again, I've been speaking with Marc Mauer, he's the executive director at the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit based in Washington, DC. Marc, do you have any closing thoughts for the listeners, and also, where can people find out about the work that you're doing there at the Sentencing Project, a website, if you have a twitter, and all that?

MARC MAUER: Well, while I'm encouraged by the one percent decline in the prison population, I think if we put in perspective, if we really want to have an affect on mass incarceration, we have to think much more broadly than that. One percent a year is not going to get us very far, so we need to reconsider our whole approach to public safety. We encourage people to join in with our work, our website is at SentencingProject.org. We have a wealth of information and policy reports and content for criminal justice reformers, and happy to add you to our mailing list for updates on legislation and other news.

DOUG MCVAY: Terrific. Marc, thank you so very much.

MARC MAUER: Okeh, great to do this. All right.


MARC MAUER: Okeh, any time.

DOUG MCVAY: All right. That was an interview with Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. You're listening to Century of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Jason Ziedenberg is the Director of Research and Policy for the Justice Policy Institute. He's been studying US criminal justice policy and practices for about the past 15 years. He's also worked within the system in both Washington, DC, and in Multnomah County, Oregon. We spoke by phone about these numbers, and the human cost that they represent.

JASON ZIEDENBERG: So, you know, for the one percent that is now back in the community, that wouldn't have been there before, or the, you know, the five thousand fewer federal prisoners that seem to be driving that, this is good news for them. For the growing movement of people that are concerned about the over-use of incarceration, the fact that we're spending 80 billion dollars plus to lock people up, the fact that people are serving too long in prison -- this isn't great news. I think in particular we've had such a good year, being able to engage a whole new group of people, particularly on the right, that are interested in reducing the prison population, and have said so at least rhetorically. The fact that we've only seen a one percent drop is actually concerning to me. With the crime drop that we've seen over the last decade and a half, we should be seeing a bigger drop in the number of people locked up. What this says to me is we have a lot more work to do to make a case to the public and policymakers that we need to be bringing down prison populations, changing laws, changing practice, and finding ways to keep people out of prisons and jails.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, the states, California of course has been under a federal court order to try and reduce its prison population. One way they've been doing that has been to simply shunt people over into the jail system, because jails are recorded separately. Have other states been using that sort of -- well, innovation is the wrong word, let's say an end-run, in order to try and reduce their populations?

JASON ZIEDENBERG: I think the California situation speaks to a couple of different things. It speaks to how complicated a game it's going to be to bring down the prison population, particularly at the state level. What you do see in California on the positive side is that, on a county-by-county basis, some counties are not choosing to build more or bigger jails, and not choosing to lock up more people. But it's very true that there's been an overall growth in jail expansion in California, which has really meant that we haven't seen the drop in the incarcerated population there that we would have thought we would have seen.

It means that we have to engage at multiple levels: the federal courts that, you know, are overseeing the California case; the California legislature, where there are groups of legislators that play a role in blocking the changes in laws that we really need to see. And then there's also a need to engage at the county level and the city level, to pull whatever levers we can pull there to keep people out of the system. So, for your listeners in Portland, Oregon, that would include engaging with even the city of Portland around how policing practices lead people to be arrested, to be brought to the jail, to the county commission which is actually figuring out better ways of reinvesting some of their dollars in the community, to the state legislature that is ultimately responsible for the statute. That's what I think the California example speaks to, a bit. We need to be hitting this on all levels.

DOUG MCVAY: Let's go for a moment to the, to private prisons. I know that's something that you've been working on, an issue you've been working on for a very long time. We saw a slight decrease in the number of inmates in private prison facilities. Still, the number has grown rapidly. Could you speak to me for a moment about the issue of private prisons?

JASON ZIEDENBERG: Yeah, I mean, you know one way of looking at it is, the total number of people in private prisons has grown by 90 percent, from '99 to 2014. There's 131,000 people now in a private prison bed. We would like to see fewer people locked up in both public prisons and private prisons. Where the private prisons are a significant problem is it creates a for-profit interest that, you know, would be engaged in keeping these prison populations up, and we have a report on our website called "Gaming The System," which gets into deeper details on this relationship between the private companies and how they engage with policymakers to artificially keep prison populations up.

It's a problem, it's a very concerning problem, it's as concerning as the fact that a one percent decline in the prison population is not going to really make a dent in the mass incarceration problem we're facing in this country.

DOUG MCVAY: And now, for a moment, let's switch over to prison overcrowding, because that's one of the reasons used, that was used for the introduction of private prisons, it's the reason that the federal courts have ordered California to try and cut down on its populations. A lot of states have problems with overcrowding. Tell us how serious is this as a problem?

JASON ZIEDENBERG: Well, it's serious on two levels. First of all, there's something like 18 states and the federal government are operating at more than 100 percent of their maximum prison capacity, so that's just the scale of the problem. It's a problem for people in prison, because it means we're exposing them to conditions that are going to make it more likely that they're going to have challenges when they get out, not less likely. It creates safety problems within these facilities, and it's just a leading indicator of, okeh, what are we doing in policy, practice, and law, that's leading so many people to be behind bars for so long? It's a sign that we're not making the progress here that we need to be making.

DOUG MCVAY: And now, regarding racial disparities, because that's a problem that's pervasive throughout the criminal justice system, and at the, when it comes to the prison end, it just keeps getting worse. Now, in their new report, BJS notes that, "Compared to violent and property offenders, inmates serving time for drug offenses in state prisons showed little racial disparity", the idea being that there are roughly equal percentages of white, black, and Hispanic state prisoners sentenced for drug offenses. But, obviously it's a huge problem generally. Now, speak to me for a moment about some of the racial disparity issues and how we can start addressing these.

JASON ZIEDENBERG: Well, let's take this apart though a little bit. First of all, there is racial disparity in the number of people ending up in prison and jail for a variety of offenses, and the offense breakdown only captures their most serious offense at the time that they went in. So, we know from the literature that there's a group of people that engage in property offenses, in some of the more violent offenses that are defined by the statute as violent, whose underlying problem is a drug or public health problem -- could be a mental health problem, could be a co-occurring challenge that they have. So, I think it underestimates, you know, the scale of the role that drugs play, when we just focus in on that one small snapshot of the population.

I'm moved by the fact that about 60 percent of the whole prison population is still African American and Latino or Hispanic. I think that's a troubling picture for us. The degree that it looks like it's changed, part of that is we're getting better -- a little bit better in some of these systems at dis-aggregating whites from Latinos in the actual counts. There are still states in which they say there's nobody Latino in prison, even though we've plenty of information that would say otherwise. The racial and ethnic disparities are a huge issue in what the impact of prison is to a community, and the fact that it is having this concentrated impact, particularly in the African American community but not just, is something we're going to be reaping real policy problems from in the future.

We know that being in prison makes it harder for you to get a job, makes it harder for you to connect to work, makes it harder for you to connect to housing, makes it harder for you to navigate multiple systems when you return to the community. The fact that this is having such a concentrated impact in a relatively small part of our community, the African American community, should be a real concern, and should really take away from any celebration we might have that we might have seen a one percent decline in the overall prison population.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, of course, turning from race to gender, one percent drop in the total, a 1.2 percent drop from last year in the number of men who are under the jurisdiction of state or federal correctional authorities, but according to the report, a 1.4 percent increase in the number of women who are behind bars. And that's, that continues a long-term trend. What's happening there?

JASON ZIEDENBERG: So, I think there are a couple of important things to talk about when we're talking about women in prison. First of all, even though they represent statistically a smaller portion of the overall population in prison, the collateral impact when we incarcerate a woman is much larger for the whole community. It means that a young person may have lost a parent to prison, their primary caregiver. In some ways it's more expensive to incarcerate a woman than it is a man, and we think it -- you know, I've not studied the trends in great detail, certainly, but there's been a lot happening around drug enforcement and human trafficking that may be leading more women to be ending up in the prison system.

I think it's a worrisome thing on multiple levels, particularly the fact that it's going to cost our communities even more when we remove a woman from being, the role that they would play in our community.

DOUG MCVAY: Jason, any closing thoughts for the listeners? And where should people go to find out more?

JASON ZIEDENBERG: So, please do visit our website, it's JusticePolicy.org, particularly if you'd like to read our report "Gaming The System" that looks at the private prison issues, and read about some of the small pieces of good news, where you're seeing this emerging bipartisan consensus that we should be doing something differently. You can engage in this issue in multiple ways. People are touched by the criminal justice system because of what we do on a policy level at the city, county, and state level. So to the degree that that these folks -- your state legislator, your county commissioner, your city council member, your neighborhood association person, even the governor -- to the degree that these people are part of your networks and you have opportunities to advocate, we ask you to advocate for safe and smart challenges to the system, ways to have fewer people locked up, and ways to see more of the money and more of the resources in public safety serving people's needs in the community they're from.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Jason Ziedenberg, Director of Research and Policy for the Justice Policy Institute. You're listening to Century of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

And now finally: last weekend there was yet another marijuana industry business conference and trade show in Portland, Oregon, my home town. While I was there I ran into someone I've wanted to speak with for quite some time. Kelly Paige was the very first manager of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, she literally put that program together from scratch for the state of Oregon. She is currently a community outreach coordinator for the Oregon Health Authority, where she still works with medical marijuana patients, clinics, and dispensaries.

KELLY PAIGE: Actually, back then it was called the Oregon Health Division. It was part of the Department of Human Services. And so we were charged with setting up the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program. I had three months to start the program back in 1999.

DOUG MCVAY: Wow. And so you have literally seen this from the very -- well, from before the beginning, practically speaking.

KELLY PAIGE: From before the beginning. I was kind of drafted to start the program, and they said, Okeh, we have to start issuing cards in three months. So my first day on the job was the first day that the advisory rules committee met. Lee Berger was on that committee, and a bunch of other interesting people. Dave Fidanque from the ACLU, some law enforcement people, some other advocates, it was a very interesting meeting. We had a few meetings. We wrote some rules, and I had to develop forms, Access database, the cards, the little registration cards.

So California had a law, but Oregon was the very first in the country to have any sort of government agency involved in registering patients and keeping any records. So there was a lot of uncertainty and fear around having this type of government involvement. But it would up becoming a great success.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Kelly Paige, a community outreach coordinator for the Oregon Health Authority, and the very first manager of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program.

And for now, that's all the time we have. Thank you for listening. This is Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Century Of Lies is heard at 420Radio.org on Mondays at 11am and 11pm, Saturdays at 4am, all times are pacific. We're heard on time4hemp.com on Wednesdays between 1 and 2pm pacific along with our sister program Cultural Baggage. And we're on The Detour Talk Network at thedetour.us on Tuesdays at 8:30pm.

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We'll be back next week with more news and commentary on the drug war and this Century Of Lies. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.