Top civil rights lawyer says U.S. criminal justice reforms are falling short – PBS NewsHour

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, the latest installment in our series Broken Justice about new approaches to criminal justice.

Tonight, we have a conversation with a noted lawyer and author on questions of sentencing, overcrowding in prisons and whether a series of changes around the country go far enough.

Jeffrey Brown traveled to Alabama for our report.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, a nonprofit founded in 1989 by lawyer and civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson to represent death row prisoners and indigent and juvenile defendants who he argues have been denied effective representation, often due to racial bias.

In recent years, which included the publication of an acclaimed memoir, “Just Mercy,” Stevenson has become a leading voice nationally for criminal justice reform.

I met him at his office in Montgomery while reporting on Alabama’s overcrowded prisons and spike in prison violence.

BRYAN STEVENSON, Founder, Equal Justice Initiative: There were less than 5,000 people in Alabama’s prisons throughout most of the 1970s.

And then you had politicians like you had all over the country get captivated, I’m going to say intoxicated, by the politics of fear.

JEFFREY BROWN: Intoxicated.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Yes, intoxicated by the politics of fear and anger. They began competing with each other over who could be the toughest on crime, and putting people in prison became the solution to virtually every problem.

Drug addiction and drug dependency, which could have been seen as a health issue, was seen as a crime issue. The growing freedom that was emerging in the Deep South for African-Americans, who until just a decade earlier couldn’t vote, couldn’t go into schools, had to be regulated. So we used the criminal justice system, and you saw this massive increase in the number of people sent to jails or prisons.

So, we went from about 5,000 people in the 1970s to 30,000 people today in a state with about 4.5 million people. That’s an unbelievably high rate of incarceration.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re seeing this — you’re seeing our incarceration system as a continuation of slavery, of a history of racial injustice in the country.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, I think it’s a continuation of using crime narrative to control social and political dynamics that can’t be controlled in more legitimate ways.

And we created this so-called war on drugs, and we targeted people of color, and we got everybody to buy into the fact that if we don’t put these dangerous people into jails and prisons, we are none safe. And that’s how we went nationwide from a prison population of about 300,000 in the 1970s to 2.3 million today. And now we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: And here in Alabama, an extreme model of it.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Exactly.

And it’s rooted in this comfort level with reducing people to their worst act and acting in very extreme, harsh, punitive ways. I mean, a state that was shaped by lynching as a response to things like interracial sex, or organizing for better sharecropping conditions, to use lynching, calling these people criminals, has created a culture, an environment where then putting people in prison for life with no chance of parole for writing a bad check or being in possession of marijuana didn’t seem so radical.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last year, Alabama’s Republican legislature and governor passed a law to reform some of Alabama’s sentencing guidelines and increase probation and parole supervision.

Stevenson believes such measures here and elsewhere don’t go nearly far enough.

BRYAN STEVENSON: I think people realize that we’re spending way too much money on jails and prisons. And I think that’s true in Alabama. It’s true nationwide. We went from $6 billion spent on jails and prisons in the United States in 1980 to $80 billion last year.

And the recession was terrible for everybody, for everything, except criminal justice reform, because, all of a sudden, state legislators had to start asking harder questions about why we’re spending so much money to keep people in jails or prison who are not a threat to public safety.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you think it’s more a concern out of money than anything else that is leading to whatever discussion there is about changes?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, I think that’s the primary motivation. I do.

If we were a more affluent today, if we had more resources, I don’t think we’d have the same interest. Too many people in this state, too many people in this country don’t care if people who are in jails or prisons are abused. They don’t care if they’re raped. They don’t care if they are murdered. They don’t care if they’re assaulted. They don’t care about their victimization.

And, because of that, we haven’t responded the way a just society, a decent society is supposed to respond when you see abuse and murder and rape and misconduct.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, if you had your opportunity, given where things are at right now, what is the one — what’s the most important thing that needs to happen?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Can I do two?

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

BRYAN STEVENSON: I will — the two things that I would do, I would commit to reducing the prison population by 5,000 people. Just put out an arbitrary number like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where do those people go?

BRYAN STEVENSON: They will go home. We have 5,000 people in our jails and prisons that could go home tomorrow that wouldn’t in any way threaten public safety.

And you know who could help us identify those 5,000 are the wardens at these prisons. If you said to any warden in the state of Alabama, can you identify 50, 100, 200 people in your prison who you think could go home tomorrow, wouldn’t be a problem, most of them could do it in a heartbeat.

We could get to that 5,000 number just like that. And then we could take the money we save, the significant money that we save, and invest in better caregiving, better management. You have to have people running prisons that care about the incarcerated, that are smart, that aren’t bullies, that aren’t reactionary, that aren’t kind of vindictive. And then you could begin to see improved conditions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you more optimistic nationally, when you look at the large picture?

BRYAN STEVENSON: I’m cautiously optimistic.

But punishment is a local issue. And the national discourse will only have an impact on places like Alabama if people in Alabama step up. But I am generally hopeful. I don’t think it’s going to happen by itself, and what I’m worried about is that Congress might pass a few reforms, we might see reforms here and there, and we’re going to declare victory, and three years from now, the prison population will have decreased by 1 percent, and we will still be the most punitive nation on the planet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Stevenson now has a broader educational project under way, erecting markers to remind people of a history often ignored, and his group is collecting samples of earth from the sites of lynchings, with an aim toward creating memorials around the state.

I asked Stevenson what drives him.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, I think, when you see what I see, you don’t have a choice. I think, if most people saw what I see, they’d have the same instinct, they’d have the same idea, that we have to fix this, because it’s unconscionable.

We have kids, 15- and 16-year- old kids, that we’re still putting in adult jails and prisons in Alabama. And what happens to those children is that they get abused, they get assaulted. And I don’t think that there’s a decent person watching this program that, if they saw that, wouldn’t feel like, we have got to stop that.

From Montgomery, Alabama, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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