Alum talks mass imprisonment

Jeremy Travis ’70 discussed the negative effects of mass incarceration, as well as racial discrepancies in today’s legal system, at a Saybrook College Master’s Tea on Sunday afternoon.

Travis, the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, analyzed the various effects of the four-fold increase in the number of Americans in prison over the past 35 years. Travis also discussed the impact this trend has had on racial imbalances in the judicial system during the talk, entitled “Thinking about Race, Crime, and Justice in the Era of Mass Incarceration.”

Travis said the policy of mass imprisonment has caused America to have the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

“Now, there are more people under state control and this control is quite different from the past,” he said. “It is less directed towards integration.”

Evidence for this era of mass incarceration includes a complex system of supervision of criminals, including procedures regarding parole, probation, and pre-trial release, combined with “invisible punishments” designed to hamper convicted criminals’ ability to exercise rights as varied as voting, driving, or obtaining student loans, Travis said. Today’s justice system, he said, is more likely than ever to send convicted criminals back to jail if they have failed the terms of their paroles.

Although crime has decreased in the past generation, Travis said the increasing rate of incarceration may in fact lead to an increased crime rate because it causes disruption of communities and families.

Travis said mass incarceration’s effects regarding race are “a very troubling aspect of the history of this policy.”

“Thirty percent of black males will spend at least one year in prison,” he said, citing a Bureau of Justice statistic. “This statistic does not include how many people will be arrested, but simply how many will spend one full year in jail.”

Travis told the audience that laws barring convicted felons from voting in several states have disenfranchised up to 25 percent of the black male population. He also mentioned a Princeton study which showed that whites with felony records were slightly more likely than blacks without felony records to be hired for a variety of jobs.

“There is a stigma about the criminal past of an African-American even when he doesn’t have one,” he said.

But Heather Stoller ’09 said she did not believe Travis addressed all sides of the issue.

“I wish he could have made it clear that differential offense rates cannot possibly account for the disparities in incarceration based on race,” she said.

Travis said while he is “optimistic about the re-entry movement” of released inmates into society, he feels that currently “there is not much cause for optimism” regarding a decrease in mass incarceration, since prisons are important to local economies.

Most students said they found Travis’ talk intriguing and informative.

Grace Kim ’07 said she found Travis’ mention of the importance of family and community strength in reducing crime provocative, and Nora Jacobsen ’10 said she appreciated the way Travis shed light on topics not usually discussed.

“He did a good job presenting pertinent issues that are underrepresented in an elite university setting,” Jacobsen said.

Prior to serving as the President of John Jay College, Travis directed the National Institute of Justice under the Clinton administration and worked as a Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. His book, “But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry,” was published in 2005.

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