The problem of mass incarceration was highlighted by the Pope’s visit last week to a Philadelphia jail, and by an HBO Special that aired earlier this week on the President’s visit last summer to a federal prison. But the public has not yet had an occasion to focus on the broader and deeper problem of mass conviction that has consigned an entire generation of African American men to second class citizenship, and their communities to continued poverty and alienation. The mere fact of a criminal record has placed a Mark of Cain on millions of Americans who never spent a day behind bars.
In this morning’s New York Times columnist David Brooks points out that the growth in state prison systems is driven by the sheer number of people prosecuted rather than sentence length, and he faults prosecutors for charging twice as many arrestees as in the past. But if it is true, as Brooks argues, that most people sent to prison nowadays spend about the same amount of time there as they did thirty years ago, the true crisis in our criminal justice system is represented by the lifetime of social marginalization and discrimination that follows them upon their release.
In New York, Governor Cuomo has taken important steps toward dealing with the problem of over-prosecution that looms large behind that of over-incarceration. It is time for elected leaders in other states to take similar steps, and time for President Obama to address the problem of collateral consequences for those with a federal conviction. For example, in his conversations with federal inmates aired on HBO he spoke admiringly of ban-the-box programs. It would be fitting if he implemented such a policy in the employment and contracting for which his Administration is responsible. He might also consider pardoning deserving individuals,or supporting alternative relief mechanisms through the courts. Hopefully in his final year he will turn his attention in that direction.