Opportunity for Criminal Justice Reform Seen in Stop and Frisk Court Ruling and Department of Justice Sentencing Reductions

Real Audio  RealAudio MP3  MP3

Posted Aug. 21, 2013

Interview with Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


Two events that occurred on Aug. 12 have been seen by some observers as an important "sea change" in the federal government's approach to criminal justice. A ruling issued by Federal Judge Schira Scheindlin found that the New York City Police Department had engaged in "indirect racial profiling" in its practice of stop and frisk, targeting hundreds of thousands of people, the majority young African American and Latino men in high crime areas. The Stop and Frisk policy, deemed by Judge Scheindlin to be unconstitutional as practiced, found very few guns or other contraband resulting in arrests. The judge called for an independent monitor to make sure New York City’s Police Department followed measures restricting the program. Scheindlin's ruling has been condemned by New York’s police commissioner as well as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the city is now appealing the decision to a higher court.

On the same day, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced his decision that the Justice Department will no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. He told an American Bar Association meeting that the U.S. "cannot prosecute or incarcerate" its way to becoming safer, and added that, "Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which has been working since 1986 to increase fairness and reduce the number of low-level offenders imprisoned in the U.S. criminal justice system. Here, he assesses the significance of the court ruling on Stop and Frisk and the Justice Department’s new position on mandatory minimum sentencing.

MARC MAUER: It's been a remarkable week for criminal justice reform, between Attorney General Holder's speech to the American Bar Association convention calling for sentencing reform and the stop and frisk federal court ruling in New York City, and I think it gives us the possibility that we are finally opening up the political roadblock on criminal justice policy. The attorney general's proposals are important, although their impact is likely to be relatively modest depending on how it plays out in the prosecutors' offices. But at the very least, it should result in fewer drug offenders serving excessively long sentences. The real value of Eric Holder's speech, though, may be in the political arena, and the symbolism of the speech to have the attorney general of the U.S. actually saying it's time to end mass incarceration, it's been destructive in many ways and we need to take a different course. For far too long, I think the problem for criminal justice reform has not been that there's a lack of research on how to do things better, but a lack of political will on making that happen, and this could be a very bold step toward opening that up now.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Depending on what side you're on in the first place, it seems like you could interpret the situation in different ways. The crime rate has been plummeting, and in New York the mayor and the police commissioner are taking credit for that, saying that stopping hundreds of thousands of black and Latino men and arresting a tiny percentage has contributed to the drop, and I'm sure people who are tough on crime would say that putting people away for 10 years or more for minor drug violations has contributed to the drop in crime. What do you say to that?

MARC MAUER: There's no evidence that the stop and frisk program has had any significant impact overall on crime. Crime was declining in New York well before the stop and frisk program was ramped up dramatically, and then last year, when the city cut down the number of stops by about a third, one might have expected crime to jump up, according to the mayor's analysis because they were doing fewer stops, and in fact there was very little difference in the crime rate, so it's very hard to see any impact. Similarly, with mass incarceration, yes, prison does have some impact on public safety: people who are truly violent and dangerous and are behind bars can't commit new crimes, but the scale of incarceration today means we are well past the point of diminishing returns, and so both the fiscal cost and the human cost really overwhelms whatever modest additional benefits we're getting from this level of incarceration.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Marc Mauer, it sounds like from what you're saying that you're fairly optimistic that these changes will lead to other, perhaps more important, changes.

MARC MAUER: We're cautiously optimistic now that the openings for reform will become more substantial in the coming years. I say cautious because the scale of mass incarceration is so enormous that it won't make much difference if we're just tinkering around the edges and seeing relatively modest shifts. What we need is a wholesale reconsideration of sentencing policy and how we use the criminal justice system. So I don't know that we're on the brink of seeing that happening, but I think the two major developments this week represent a great step forward, both in terms of addressing incarceration and in terms of improving racial justice in society broadly. What we've seen in mass incarceration over four decades is that we've become the world leader in incarceration and that prisons have become overwhelmingly populated by people of color, so much so that criminal justice prison has become an almost inevitable part of the growing up of young black males and increasingly young Latino males, and women as well. This is really the point now where it's interrupting life cycles, it's interrupting family formation, and we can only hope that with the shifts we're seeing now, we may be able to redress, at least modestly, some of these decades-long policies and their very disturbing impacts.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Marc Mauer, some states, even in the conservative South, have significantly reduced their prison populations, with budget savings being one of the main drivers. Do you think the economic situation of the country in the past five years has helped this along in any way, or is it totally separate?

MARC MAUER: I think the reform movement we've seen is more than a decade old now, as policy makers and the public increasingly are trying to look for what promotes safety rather than what sounds tough on crime. In terms of the war on drugs, I think most Americans now recognize that putting someone in a prison cell for five years and not providing treatment doesn't get us very far. The whole movement toward prisoner re-entry – how do we help people transition back to the community from prison – is also a public safety approach as well as compassionate, too. And I think all that's been spurred on, ironically, by the fiscal crisis. You know, the fact that at the state-level governors have to balance their budgets. They really need to think now about whether they want to continue to build new prisons or build college classrooms. We have to decide what to do for the next generation of children growing up, and I think that's helped to spur these conversations along as well.

Find more information and analysis about reforms of the U.S. criminal justice system by visiting sentencingproject.org.

Related Links: