BENNINGTON -- Glenn Martin, president and founder of JustLeadershipUSA, gave a guest lecture at Bennington College on Thursday, speaking on his time in the criminal justice system and how his organization hopes to cut the prison population of the U.S. in half by 2030.
2.3 million in system
There are 2.3 million people currently in the U.S. criminal justice system, according to Martin, who himself spent six years in the New York prison system, who are costing Americans roughly $80 billion each year. Seven million people, he said, are under some sort of supervision from the justice system. At Rikers Island, the prison that serves New York City, it costs $160,000 to keep a single inmate for one year. Martin likened America's criminal justice system to owning the best bicycle on the market, and only running it on one gear.
"There is no minor interaction with the legal system," argued Martin, who is currently the vice president of public affairs and director of the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy at the Fortune Society and appears as a criminal justice policy reform expert on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, and a number of local media outlets, according to his website. He pointed to New York's controversial "stop and frisk" policy, in which, he says, many arrests stem from the interaction with the officer, rather than the discovery of any wrongdoing. These arrests can act as a "gateway drug" into the legal system.
Martin pointed to what he called the failed War on Drugs as one factor in why prisons in America, which boasts 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population, are so full. "We have taken a public health issue, put it into the criminal justice arena, and didn't give them the resources to deal with it."
"Those are lives," he said, "individual lives destroyed by this opinion that the longer you keep drug users in prison, the more positive results you'll see. This is a policy based not on facts and research, but fear and emotion."
Martin also spoke out against mandatory minimum sentences, which he says give too much power to the prosecution, which leads to 95 percent of crimes never going to trial, as defendants are often willing to take a deal rather than try to prove their innocence with the stakes so high. Prosecutors, he said, use the system to put as many people behind bars as possible. "When you're a hammer," he said, "everything looks like a nail."
Martin argued that the criminal justice system puts too much focus on punishment, and not enough on turning criminals back into productive members of society, pointing to the fact that the majority of people who leave prisons will end up back one day. "Punishment" he said, "is an important part of the system, but if you talk to the victims, some want punishment, but many, the second thing they'll say, or sometimes even the first, is ‘I don't want this person to do this to anyone else.'"
"When you've locked up 2.3 million people," he said, "you've gone well past public safety. This system destroys lives, destroys dreams, and destroys communities."
Martin pointed to "Four E's" that are stripped away by what he called criminal record-based discrimination: education, employment, enfranchisement, and equality. Martin participated in a New York-based study in which fake resumes were sent to over 2,500 area businesses. The study found that candidates with any kind of criminal record were less likely to receive a call-back than an equally qualified candidate without a record, especially if they were non-white. African-American candidates with criminal records in particular, saw many fewer call-backs than white candidates, even those with criminal records. "Racism is not dead, as much as we like to tell ourselves that it is," said Martin.
"The laws don't say, lock up poor people, lock up black people," said Martin, who instead pointed to how laws are enforced in specific areas. A sheriff in a small, wealthy community is far less likely to lock up a teenager for a minor offence than a police officer in a big city, where the population tends to be poorer and more ethnically diverse, said Martin. As a demonstration of this concept, Martin brought up his time working with youths in New York City. Police would watch teenagers leave his office, and arrest them for littering if they dropped their subway ticket stub on the ground. The police, said Martin, knew that most of the teenagers he worked with had been in prison, and that littering, normally just a ticketable offense, was cause for arrest if the subject had a criminal record, which led to overtime pay for the officers, who had to process the offenders. "Police don't bust down doors at Goldman Sachs," he said.
During the lecture, Martin told several stories of his own personal experiences in the prison system. At one point, Martin and a group of other college educated inmates worked to get onto the prison's Prisoner Liaison Committee, which met with prison management to discuss potential policy changes. After one meeting, during which Martin said it became clear that the committee was not going to back down from their demanded changes, Martin and the other committee members found their cells "randomly" searched. Police found identical razor blades in each of the cells, and put each committee member in solitary confinement for two weeks, after which they were given the option to either spend the next 10 years in solitary confinement or to resign their committee seats. Every one resigned.
"The criminal justice system does everything it can to dehumanize," he said, "Why? Because it's a lot easier to put a ‘convict' in solitary confinement for 10 years than it is a ‘person.' The system we have now, it takes people, puts them in a box, and defines them a certain way so we can sleep at night. If you scare people enough, they'll pay whatever it costs to keep the scary person away from them."
Martin said the most important thing audience members could do to help further the cause of halving the U.S. prison population by 2030 is simply talking about the issue, with as many people who will listen. He talked about how Americans needed to challenge their stereotypes. "Most murder victims in this country are young black men, but we have this vision of a white woman," said Martin. Despite the perception that many in the prison system are beyond help, Martin said, "I have yet to see a person I'm willing to write off."
"It's hard to have a discussion about a system when it's set up so that we're not thinking of it as a system that affects all of us, but as simply a perpetrator and a victim," he said.
The lecture was the first of a series of events at Bennington College that will culminate with a conference on the subject of prison system reform in October.
"I challenge you," said Martin to close his talk, "if you believe prison is a place where bad people go when they commit crimes, I ask you, where do good people go when they commit crimes?"
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB