The Courage to Be Lecture Series:
Valentina Flores '22
There are about 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, a reality that makes the United States notorious for being the world's leader in incarceration. In recent years, however, this phenomenon—mass incarceration, has gained momentum as a matter of discussion in conversations about criminal justice. Various reforms have been proposed such as eliminating mandatory minimums, removing sentence enhancements like California's three-strikes laws, lowering the penalties for drug crimes, among others, however, all have been incapable of inciting immediate change. This lack of urgency in rectifying the crisis of mass incarceration was at the heart of Professor Steven Zeidman’s lecture, Punishment, Redemption, and Mercy. Citing that despite how 'useful' said reforms might be, they do nothing for people currently behind bars.
To confront and rectify the crisis of mass incarceration; he emphatically deemed it necessary to decarcerate the nation’s prisons. This decarceration, however, will not emerge out of thin air, as Zeidman declares and points us in the direction of clemency. Clemency is the process under criminal law that allows an executive member of the government to extend mercy to a convicted individual in the form of commuting a sentence or a successful release from prison. Clemency, as Zeidman describes, is the only viable option many people have in our current unjust system. Clemency is not meant to challenge the current politics, but it is rather a plea for mercy within a system that does not foresee its mistakes. It is ultimately an unutilized tool whose proper execution can help chip away at the injustices the criminal legal system creates and perpetuates. Directing the audience towards a re-imagination of our criminal justice system, more specifically, a different approach in sentencing, professor Zeidman referred to a promising legislative proposition. That of, The Second Look Act (H.R. 3795/S. 2146), a bill that would allow judges to resentence individuals with lengthy sentences after ten years of incarceration if the judge finds that the individual is not a danger to public safety and has shown they are prepared, for reentry.
To redress mass incarceration, as per Zeidman's words, decarceration is necessary. We must reimagine our current approach to criminal sentencing— and disrupt the narrative that releasing those in prison convicted of nonviolent offenses will minimize mass incarceration. When in reality, there are more people in prison convicted of violent crimes. Ultimately, making their release necessary for a substantive redress of our current mass incarceration crisis. In the end, to paraphrase a sentiment uttered by professor Zeidman, “we can write all the new Jim Crows and theorize about the beginnings of mass incarceration but what matters is what we are doing to make a change." Currently, clemency is the only power at our disposal that can rectify and address mass incarceration.