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Mass Incarceration Is A Major U.S. Issue, Georgetown Law Professor Says


Attorney General Jeff Sessions reignited a debate over criminal justice this month. He directed prosecutors to seek so-called mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug convictions. The attorney general's order overturned guidance from the Obama administration.

Sessions wants prosecutors to bring the most serious charges possible, ones with potentially long sentences. This week, we will be exploring this disagreement over how best to prosecute drug offenses, and we'll hear voices making the case both for and against mandatory minimums. To begin, our colleague Rachel Martin sat down with Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: People talk a lot about how the criminal justice system is broken, and that can mean a lot of different things. How would you define that brokenness?

PAUL BUTLER: I think of the system being broken in three areas. One has to do with mass incarceration. We lock up more people than any country in the history of the world. The area that's gotten the most attention recently is policing, the idea that especially in communities of color, the police are more violent, they're more likely to arrest African-Americans and Latinos when they don't arrest white people.

And the third area where the system needs major reform has to do with the way that we treat people who are incarcerated, issues like solitary confinement which the scientific evidence tells us has a devastating impact on people who are subject to it.

MARTIN: Why? Why did we get to this point? I mean, you talk about the underlying discrimination that's embedded in these policies. Is it just explicit racism? I mean, how did we get here?

BUTLER: In the 1970s and '80s as African-Americans gain more political power, the police started to focus more of their resources on those communities. They used tactics like broken windows policing and stop and frisk.

MARTIN: Broken windows was when you prosecuted people for small petty crimes in hopes that it would deter bigger crimes.

BUTLER: And the result was people got locked up for things like spitting in the street, drinking in public, jumping the subway turnstile.

MARTIN: What do you say to someone out there who hears that and says, well, I'm sorry, even if it was a low-level crime, you jumped a turnstile. You broke a law. There is a punishment to be paid.

BUTLER: The reality is that for these low-level offenses, white people commit them just as much as African-Americans, but they don't face the same consequences. The idea is when it comes to law enforcement, what's good enough for white people is good enough for African-Americans.

MARTIN: What's working in our criminal justice system?

BUTLER: There's a new approach is called smart on crime which uses evidence-based approaches to making communities safer and reducing the prison population using treatment for people who have addiction problems, thinking of it as a health issue as much as a criminal justice issue. And in states like New York, Texas and California that have reduced their prison population by letting out some of these nonviolent offenders, the crime rate has gone down.

MARTIN: Are you seeing any encouraging signs from your point of view in the Justice Department as led by Jeff Sessions?

BUTLER: There are points of light here and there. For example, the Sessions Justice Department has focused on homicides against transgender people. Transgender women of color especially are extremely likely to be victims of crime. And it's great that the federal government under Attorney General Sessions is showing some support for that community.

MARTIN: If you were to articulate three concrete changes that would improve the criminal justice system for in particular minority communities who have been disproportionately affected by it, what would those changes be?

BUTLER: We have to think of public safety in a more holistic way, and so when we increase the number of jobs, when we raise the minimum wage, when we help young people graduate from high school, that reduces the prison population. That makes families whole, and it makes neighborhoods safer.

MARTIN: Paul Butler is a law professor at Georgetown University. Thank you so much for your time.

BUTLER: It's great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.