American Judges Speak Out Against Mass Incarceration

 

 This country exceeds by far every other advanced country in the world in the numbers of its citizens it holds in jails. A punitive justice system put in place thirty years ago, intended to reduce crime, has only succeeded in swelling the ranks of the unemployable and creating a gigantic correctional institution industry. In this article  from the June 23 New York Times, Alan Feuer tells us how some judges today have reacted against it:

new-york-city-criminalThe New York Criminal Court

In a speech last week to a group of New York lawyers, a federal judge from Brooklyn assailed the criminal justice system in which he has worked for more than 40 years, saying that the country had to “jettison the madness of mass incarceration” and find an alternative to overly punitive sentencing to address the problem of crime.

The speech by Judge Raymond J. Dearie of the Federal District Court in Brooklyn, at an event sponsored by the New York Criminal Bar Association, may not have struck new ground in its critique of the justice system. But it did put him in the company of other federal judges in Brooklyn who in recent months have come forward with scathing appraisals of things such as mandatory sentencing guidelines and the disregard paid to the socioeconomic roots of crime.

Last month, for instance, Judge Frederic Block wrote an extraordinary ruling saying that courts should pay closer attention to how felony convictions affect peoples’ lives with “collateral consequences” such as ineligibility for public housing and the denial of government benefits. And in March, just before he moved into private practice, Judge John Gleeson used his final decision from the bench to reiterate his own preference for handing down sentences other than prison time to some nonviolent offenders.

All three judges were, in some sense, working in the mold of Jack B. Weinstein, one of the longest-sitting judges on the federal bench in Brooklyn, which is formally known as the Eastern District of New York. In 2011, at age 87, Judge Weinstein went on a walking tour of the Louis Armstrong Houses in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood before issuing a novelistic ruling in a gang case. The nearly 130-page decision discussed the housing project’s paltry median income, its crumbling infrastructure and the effects of segregation and discrimination on its residents.

“It’s true that there’s a degree to which Eastern District judges have been vocal, but there are a lot more cases out there — they’re just below the radar,” Judge Gleeson said in an interview on Thursday. “I think there is some leadership going on in Eastern where the judges are inclined to speak about these problems. But they’re not the only ones who see them and act on them.”

Judge Dearie, a former prosecutor who once served as the United States attorney in Brooklyn, gave his speech on June 13 at the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park. He started by touching on themes that would not be unfamiliar to most criminal-justice reform advocates.

He confessed to wanting to “scream out in frustration, sadness and anger” at being forced by Congress to impose mandatory sentences on many defendants who appeared before him. He also said that most criminals are “not evil incarnate” but rather act out of “weakness, need, sometimes desperation.” He added, “So many defendants I see are without schooling, skills, hope or direction, and no term of years is going to change that.”

Insisting that his words were not a cry for a broad application of leniency — “Retribution and deterrence have their place in sound sentencing jurisprudence,” he said — Judge Dearie nonetheless questioned the practice of prosecutors and law enforcement officers to gauge their success by how many years a defendant spends in prison.

“Why this love affair in this country with lengthy incarceration, to our great embarrassment as a civilized nation?” he asked, according to a transcript of the speech.

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