How can we stop so many young black men from getting kicked out of school and spending their lives in jail? a high-school official asked a U.S. senator.
“The prison system is not working,” and sentences need to be lowered, the senator replied.
The exchange took place Monday morning, as U.S. Sen. Dick Blumenthal visited a civics class at Common Ground, an environmental-themed charter school at the base of West Rock Park.
Blumenthal paid the visit as part of a larger listening tour on gun violence. He chose that spot because the school community is still reeling from the shooting death of a senior named Javier Martinez. Martinez, who was 18 years old and did not have a criminal record, is believed to be an innocent victim who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Blumenthal spoke of Javier’s death on the Senate floor in January, calling it “a testament to our continuing responsibility, our obligation, and our opportunity to combat and prevent gun violence on the streets and the neighborhoods across our country.” Then he returned on Monday morning for a wide-ranging conversation with a dozen students of Brian Kelahan’s civics class on the causes and consequences of gun violence and criminal justice.
Melissa Spear, Common Ground’s executive director, asked Blumenthal about the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and “how the judicial system seems to disproportionately impact young minority men.”
Connecticut has one of the most disparate rates of incarceration between blacks and whites: 12 times as many black people are locked up than white, according to The Sentencing Project. Spear mentioned the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, which has ignited national outrage over systemic disparities in how minorities are treated by the criminal justice system and beyond.
Spear mentioned that the way that schools treat discipline—for example, calling cops to arrest black boys who act out in school—can feed into the mass incarceration of black males. (Common Ground has a “restorative justice” approach to discipline, which focuses on addressing harm instead of punishment.)
Blumenthal replied that the federal government unfortunately does not have authority over most juvenile justice systems. However, he said, there is a new effort, led by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, to change sentencing guidelines. Holder earlier this month called for lower sentences for drug offenders, as part of an effort to reduce the ballooning prison population. In large part due to the War on Drugs, there are now 2.2 million people behind bars in the U.S.—a 500 increase over the past 30 years, according to the Sentencing Project.
Blumenthal said there is rare bipartisan support around reducing prison sentences, including from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a member of the Tea Party.
“There is very powerful momentum behind trying to address the disparities” in the treatment of minorities by the criminal justice system, Blumenthal said.
Some conservatives support the effort for financial reasons, he noted: “The costs [of mass incarceration] are simply staggering.”
“One of the root causes here” of gun violence, Blumenthal argued, is “the failings of the justice system” to rehabilitate prisoners or to deter crime by locking them up.
“The prison system is not working.”
In response to a question from teaching assistant Chris Desir (at right in photo), Blumenthal said he does not support the privatization of prisons. Prisons should be run by the government, not by private companies, he said.
Blumenthal also vowed renewed support for a federal gun control bill, after a recent effort failed.
“You may know more about some of these things than I do,” Blumenthal said. For the next civics lesson, he invited students to the Capitol to testify about the effects of gun violence.
“The country has become accustomed in a very terrible way to gun violence,” he said. “We cannot accept that kind of world.”