In a Netflix original documentary titled 13TH, to signify the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, scholars, activists and politicians discuss and analyze the criminalization of African Americans in the United States. This thought-provoking film argues that the mass incarceration of African Americans across the United States is in fact an extension of slavery. See NPR Review. The filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s website features the documentary’s official trailer along with a list of reviews from variety of newspapers. Check it out!
POST WRITTEN BY: John Humbach, Professor of Law at Pace Law School.
Much has been written about the extraordinary rates of incarceration as a pressing criminal justice problem. Mass incarceration is, however, only part of the challenge posed by the American criminal justice system. Already, an estimated 25% of U.S. adults have a criminal record and, with a million new felony convictions per year—one every 30 seconds—America’s ex-offender population is growing exponentially (see chart to the right). Our country is well on its way to becoming a nation of ex-cons.
The effects of being a “criminal” do not, moreover, end with release from prison. Newly released inmates are immediately met by a growing assortment of law-prescribed “collateral consequences” that now number in the tens of thousands. In their cumulative impact, these legal disabilities greatly reduce the ability of ex-offenders to find housing, make a living, get an education, obtain bank loans, support their children or, generally, to enjoy the usual rights and amenities of citizenship that are essential for a reasonable quality of life. As a result, our nation’s criminal-justice policy is literally re-making America into a legally divided multi-stratum society with an entrenched system of law-sanctioned discrimination against a large and growing underclass with a legally-prescribed inferior civic status.
Already, the ex-offender class is the nation’s largest legally discriminated-against minority group, and it is growing. The adverse social implications of this trend remain unclear and the critical demographic tipping point is still uncertain. But whatever the details, this is surely not good path for the nation to be on.
- Sarah Shannon, et al., Growth in the U.S. Ex-Felons and Ex-Prisoner Population, 1948-2010, Figure 4 – Growth of Felons and Ex-Felons, 1948-2010 (unpublished manuscript).
We are very excited to feature Prof. Michael B. Mushlin’s latest law review article in which he compares Kafka’s fictitious world of punishment to the current state of solitary confinement in the United States. Prof. Mushlin has extensive experience in the field of prisoner’s rights work and specific issues such as solitary confinement.
POST WRITTEN BY: Erica Danielsen (’16), J.D. Pace Law School
Franz Kafka lived in the Austria-Hungarian empire, in what is now Czech Republic, and wrote fiction stories in German during the 20th century. In 1914 Kafka wrote In the Penal Colony, a story describing a torture and execution device used in a mythical prison’s operation system. The machine would carve the sentence of a condemned prisoner on his skin before killing him over the course of twelve hours. The use of this machine only came to an end when a “Traveler,” an outsider invited to the penal colony, condemned its use by expressing, “I am opposed to this procedure.” Without the Traveler having been allowed to enter and observe what occurred in the penal colony no change to the system would have taken place.
For the 100th Anniversary of Kafka’s work, Prof. Muslin wrote, “I Am Opposed To This Procedure:” How Kafka’s In the Penal Colony Illuminates the Current Debate About Solitary Confinement and Oversight of American Prisons. The article, which is published in the Oregon Law Review, compares the use of the penal colony’s machine to the current use of solitary confinement in American prisons. Both the penal colony’s machine and solitary confinement inflict great psychological and physical pain on the people subjected to it. Additionally, both are seen as essential to the operation of the prison system yet neither would see change without an outside perspective into its use.
This article first recounts Kafka’s story In the Penal Colony and describes how Kafka’s professional life as an attorney might have influenced his story. It then provides a description of the American prison system focusing on two important aspects: the massive use of solitary confinement and the lack of meaningful oversight. The article is then brought together with a discussion of how Kafka’s profound insights, so powerfully set out in In the Penal Colony, can help society today understand why prison doors must be opened to outside scrutiny and why the rampant use of solitary confinement in the United States must end just as the penal colony’s machine was put to an end.
- Michael B. Mushlin, “I Am Opposed To This Procedure:” How Kafka’s In the Penal Colony Illuminates the Current Debate About Solitary Confinement and Oversight of American Prisons, 93 Or. L. Rev. 571 (2015).
- Michael B. Mushlin, Kafka and the Debate Over Solitary Confinement, Solitary Watch (July 9, 2015).
POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.
The Honorable Jed S. Rakoff, Senior Federal District Judge serving on the Southern District of New York, is one of the most distinguished federal judges and one of the most outspoken on criminal justice issues. A previous PCJI post reported on Judge Rakoff’s recommendations for the process of plea-bargaining. In November 2014, the judge addressed this issue further in an article he wrote for the New York Review of Books.
Prior to assuming the bench in 1996, Judge Rakoff was a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, where he served as Chief of the Business and Securities Fraud Prosecutions Unit. He subsequently entered private practice and worked, among other assignments, as a defense lawyer on securities law prosecutions.
Judge Rakoff has been a friend of the Pace Law School community. He has on several occasions judged Pace’s Grand Moot Competition. He has also mooted Pace’s International Criminal Court moot court team, drawing on his experience as an advisor to International Criminal Court prosecutors at The Hague.
In an article published in the May 21, 2015 issue of the New York Review of Books, Judge Rakoff thoroughly reviews the issue of mass incarceration in the United States. The judge recently addressed this issue further in a speech he delivered at a conference at Harvard Law School in April 2015.
The judge notes that while the population of the U.S. is about 5 percent of the world’s population, U.S. prisons house nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
Judge Rakoff attributes these statistics in large part to strict sentencing laws adopted, beginning in the 1970s, by Congress and State legislatures. These laws, which included mandatory minimum sentences for both violent and non-violent crimes, were intended to reduce the high rate of violent crime the U.S. was experiencing in the 1960s and 1970s. “The dictate common to all these laws,” the judge writes, “was that, no matter how minor the offender’s participation in the offense may have been, and no matter what mitigating circumstances might be present, the judge was required to send him to prison, often for a substantial number of years.”
In the years following adoption of these laws, the U.S. crime rate significantly declined. “The unavoidable question,” Judge Rakoff says, is whether the decrease in the U.S. crime rate can be attributed – either wholly or at least in some part – to the adoption of these strict sentencing laws. Judge Rakoff reviews several analytical studies that attempt to answer this question. The judge notes that the answer to this question is especially important because of the social effect of these laws: “by locking up so many young men, most of them men of color, we contribute to the erosion of family and community life in ways that harm generations of children, while creating a future cadre of unemployable ex-cons many of whom have learned in prison how better to commit future crimes.”
Judge Rakoff’s conclusion from the evidence presented, and the claims made, in these studies is that “one cannot fairly claim to know with any degree of confidence or precision the relative role of increased incarceration in decreasing crime.”
To rebut public belief to the contrary, the judge writes that
those whom the public does respect should point out why statutes prescribing mandatory minimums, draconian guidelines, and the like are not the solution to controlling crime, and why, in any case, the long-term price of mass incarceration is too high to pay, not just in economic terms, but also in terms of shared social values.
The Ninth Circuit recently upheld a due process challenge to an ATF sting that targeted the poorest minority neighborhoods in Phoenix to court individuals – with a promise of riches – to break into and rob local fictitious, non-existent stash houses. Many of these individuals had no criminal records; almost all were out of work and poor.
Pace Professor Bennett L. Gershman analyzes the ATF’s penchant for creating fictitious crimes (see e.g., Operation Fast and Furious) in a recent Huffington Post column. Click here to read the entire post.