The American criminal justice system is exceptional, in the worst way possible: It combines exceptionally coercive plea bargaining, exceptionally long sentences, exceptionally brutal prison conditions and exceptionally difficult obstacles to societal re-entry.
This punitiveness makes us stand out as uniquely inhumane in comparison with other industrialized countries. To remedy this, along with other changes, we must consider opening the exit doors — and not just for the “easy” cases of nonviolent drug offenders. Yes, I’m suggesting that we release some of the people who once committed serious, violent crimes.
There’s widespread agreement that current practices are unsustainable. The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, yet has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The grim reality of American justice is that there are 2.3 million people behind bars, five million on parole or probation, 20 million with felony convictions and over 70 million with a criminal record.
That’s why sentencing reform — mainly consisting of reduced penalties for drug-related crimes — has received bipartisan support at both the federal and state levels. But this isn’t enough. We should also bring back discretionary parole — release before a sentence is completed — even for people convicted of violent crimes if they’ve demonstrated progress during their imprisonment. [...] Read the full op-ed on NYTimes.com.
A Q&A with Georgetown University professor Marc Morjé Howard on parole boards’ incentive to keep inmates in jail
In recent years, national discussions of criminal-justice reform have largely revolved around non-violent drug-related convictions—as illustrated by the hundreds of federal inmates that Barack Obama granted clemency to at the end of his second term. In a sense, these offenders are low-hanging fruit: They are arguably the most politically palatable inmate demographic, and many lawmakers can champion their cause with limited risk.
The opposite is true for violent offenders, whose release from prison has been taboo since at least the 1988 presidential campaign. Willie Horton, the convicted murderer who committed a series of violent crimes while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison in 1986, was featured in an ad that year painting Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis as soft-on-crime. Dukakis, who as Massachusetts governor had endorsed the furlough program, lost the election, relegating violent offenders to the fringes of public debate for the next three decades.
Yet Marc Morjé Howard, the director of Georgetown University’s Prison and Justice Initiative, argues that meaningful reform hinges on this group. In his recently published book, Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism, Howard makes the case that reducing prison time for those convicted of violence would curb mass incarceration without increasing threats to public safety. He alleges that parole boards full of political appointees, who worry they’ll risk their jobs if they grant freedom to the wrong person, keep thousands of rehabilitated inmates stuck in prison.
I spoke with Howard about the nature of violent crime, the depoliticization of parole boards, and how America’s treatment of prisoners is different from that of European countries. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. [...] Read the full article on TheAtlantic.com
Last February, government professor Marc M. Howard launched the Prisons and Justice Initiative — a collaborative program of scholars, practitioners and students set to examine the problem of mass incarceration in the United States from multiple academic perspectives, such as social theory and cultural studies — as a starting point for research seeking to influence social reform.
Since its founding, not only has the initiative increased awareness about this issue in the Georgetown community, but it has also continued to push toward prison and criminal justice reforms.
Nearing the two-year anniversary of PJI, Howard released his new book Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism in July. Howard’s book delves into the distinctive severity of the American prison system — particularly in comparison to its equivalent judicial structures across Europe.
Professor Marc Morjé Howard was featured on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC. The discussion covered whether "the American justice system needs to bring back what's called 'discretionary parole' and release those convicted of violent crimes before their sentence is complete if they've demonstrated progress while incarcerated." Find the interview on WNYC's website.
Professor Marc Morjé Howard spoke with Jami Floyd of WNYC, an NPR affiliate in New York. "It's an easy case to make for non-violent drug offenders, but they only constitute 17% of the American prison population," Howard said. "We need to look at some harder questions, at people who did commit a violent crime, but often long ago. And that brings up the question of rehabilitation and reform." Find the interview on WNYC's website.
"Brian Ferguson was a 20-year-old college student in West Virginia when he was accused in 2002 of fatally shooting a fellow classmate. Mr. Ferguson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole, and he remained in prison until a committed team of pro bono lawyers won his release and exoneration for the crime in 2013. After his release, Mr. Ferguson returned to Washington, D.C. and soon discovered a gap in services for people re-entering society after incarceration. In response to these challenges, he developed Start Line, which he describes as a kind of Yelp for returning citizens. Brian Ferguson enrolled at Georgetown University after meeting government professor Marc Howard, who launched the university’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, which addresses pressing policy and moral issues surrounding prison reform and mass incarceration through programs and events. Professor Howard joins Mr. Ferguson in this episode." View the show page here.
Foreword Reviews Executive Editor Howard Lovy interviews Marc Morjé Howard, author of Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism. Marc compares and contrasts prison conditions in other industrialized democracies --- France, Germany, and the UK --- with that of the United States. This is part of a special IndieVoices episode on criminal justice reform. Visit the IndieVoices show page for more.
Washington Post Magazine Cover Story
In this class, prisoners and Georgetown students grapple with difficult lessons
September 8, 2016 | By Dan Zak
Marc Howard's "Prison Reform Project" class that brought together students from Georgetown University and the Jessup Correctional Institution was featured as the cover story in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine in September 2016. Click to read the full story.
Marc Howard speaks on Oprah about false confessions and his childhood friend, Marty Tankleff, who was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for over 17 years before being freed in December 2007.
Marc Howard explains in a video interview with StrongReturns.org why the criminal justice system's "isolated incidents" are actually all connected.
Marc Howard launches the Prisons and Justice Initiative at an event on "Reversing the Tide of Mass Incarceration: Prospects for Prison Reform," held in Gaston Hall, with 700 people in attendance.