With prisons facing severe overcrowding and citizens questioning the justice of today’s legal system, reform may seem inevitable. But what direction should that reform take?
Two panelists spoke about the potential for prison reform April 14 in Pomona College’s Rose Hills Theatre, in a lecture sponsored by the Pomona Student Union. With a focus on reforming policies like mandatory minimums, the panelists included University of California, Los Angeles public policy professor Mark Kleiman and Melissa Burch, who has worked with the prison abolition organization Critical Resistance and the A New Way of Life Reentry Project. The program aims to support formerly incarcerated women as they reintegrate into society.
The speakers’ differing backgrounds brought different perspectives to the conversation.
“I think that the background of the two speakers was an interesting complement to one another,” Mollie Cowger PO ’16 said. “Melissa Burch is involved in the more activism realm and Professor Klieman is more on the academic side, and I think that that came across in what they were talking about.”
As the prison system continues to be an issue of much debate, the panel provided an opportunity for discussion. Any issue will be magnified on a large scale since the U.S. has the largest prison system in the world, according to Burch.
“According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, since Congress created mandatory minimums for drug crimes in 1984, the federal prison population has grown from 24,000 prisoners to over 214,000, with over half of those inmates incarcerated for drug related offenses, leading to numerous problems, including severe overcrowding,” said Olivia Dure PO ’17, a PSU social chair.
Burch discussed such failures of the U.S. prison system and shared statistics about race in prison.
“Sixty percent of the people behind bars are not white,” Burch said. “One in every ten black males resides in jail. There are more black men behind bars than there were enslaved in 1850.”
Burch then went on to talk about the violence of structural oppression, transformative justice and prison reform. She urges the reduction of the amount of people in jails and halting the continued expansion of the prison system in general. Kleiman has similar views.
“To get back to historic, pre-1970s levels of incarceration, we’d need to cut our current jail populations by 80 percent or more. And our current situation is not just a function of putting more people behind bars—part of it is that sentences have grown much larger in the past few decades,” Kleiman said in a March 2015 article in The Washington Post.
Although Kleiman believes in deincarceration, he does not believe that prisons should be completely eradicated.
“There ought to be a very special reason to put someone in a cage,” Kleiman said.
Such views are distinctly the panelist’s own. Members of PSU brought these speakers to Pomona to foster an open dialogue about prisons and prison reform.
“I think its something people here don’t talk about that often, and it’s an issue that, in general, the U.S. doesn’t talk about that often, even though it is so critical and crucial to what’s going on, especially in L.A.,” PSU Social Chair Nathalie Folkerts PO ’16 said. “Things are happening right in our backyard, but students aren’t aware of it, so I think connecting us with that is super important.”
And provoke dialogue it did. After the event, students, faculty and members of the community spoke with one another about the topics raised by both Burch and Kleiman.
“Especially at Pomona, where the prison system isn’t something that many students deal with directly, although it certainly plays a role likely in some student’s lives, I think its useful to hear about the dynamics of that and think about how that might impact [both] students and the world in general,” Cowger said.