There are myriad reasons for America’s mass incarceration crisis: the proliferation of “three strikes and you’re out” laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and the nation’s drive to be “tough on crime.”
But in a new book, one legal scholar argues that overzealous prosecutors and their prosecutorial discretion are major reasons people are overcharged and prisons are overcrowded.
“The unfettered power of prosecutors is the missing piece for explaining how the rate of incarceration in the United States has quintupled since the 1980s, to almost 2.2 million,” writes Emily Bazelon, an investigative journalist for the New York Times Magazine and the author of “Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration.” “Our level of imprisonment is five to 10 times higher than that of other liberal democracies – nine times Germany’s and seven times France’s,” she writes.
But Bazelon thinks the pendulum is starting to swing the other way for the American criminal justice system.
“I think there is a window of opportunity open right now for addressing the worst excesses of the criminal justice system,” Bazelon said on “Chicago Tonight.” “I think that’s the case because crime is down and people are seeing the huge cost of all of this over incarceration. Both the human cost and the fiscal cost.”
A number of bills have been signed into law nationally to turn the tide. In June 2017, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bail reform bill to ensure that low-level, non-violent offenders will no longer languish behind bars because they can’t afford bail.
In April, the state of New York ended cash bail for most misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses. California reformed its bail system in 2018.
“This is a bipartisan sense of awareness when you look at public opinion polls about criminal justice. You see conservative Republicans as well as liberal Democrats really concerned about the kind of system we’ve created and asking how we can bring it back under control and really shrink it down,” she said.
Bazelon is a Yale Law School professor and the school’s Truman Capote Fellow for Creative Writing and Law she is also a co-host of the podcast, “Slate Political Gabfest.”