By PEARL MACEK/ecoRI News contributor
NEWPORT, R.I. — A panel of four experts on social justice recently spoke to a small audience at Salve Regina University about the U.S. criminal justice system. The March 9 event was part of the university’s continued effort to celebrate this Jubilee Year of Mercy.
With hope of encouraging people of all faiths worldwide to show compassion and mercy to others, Pope Francis declared an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. It’s “extraordinary” because it falls outside of the normal cycle of holy years. It started Dec. 8, 2015 and will end Nov. 20.
The panel consisted of William Issel, the John E. McGinty chair in history at Salve Regina University; Leo Carroll, department chair of sociology and anthropology at the University of Rhode Island; Donna Murch, associate professor of history at Rutgers University; and Alex Gerould, associate professor of criminal justice studies at San Francisco State University.
Carroll, who has studied and written extensively on race and ethnicity and how they intersect with the criminal justice system, said that although there has been some recognition at the political level that the United States needs to reduce its incarcerated population, he isn’t sure when it will happen.
“I’m hopeful that we can do so, but I am skeptical that it will happen,” Carroll said. He noted that until racial and economic disparities are minimized, the United States will continue to have the highest prison population in the world.
There were 1,561,500 individuals in state or federal custody at the end of 2014, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of those, 516,900 were black males.
Carroll said the Unites States has less than 5 percent of the global population but has nearly 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. He said we should no longer be talking about the “American Dream” as a good thing.
“They really should be talking about the Icelandic Dream,” or any other western European country for that matter, Carroll said.
Gerould spoke about “The Valley of the Shadow of Death: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption” — the memoir of Kermit Alexander, an NFL player whose mother, sister and two nephews were brutally murdered in 1984 by Los Angeles gang members. Gerould co-wrote the book and spoke about how he came to know Alexander, learning about L.A. gang warfare and capital punishment and, most importantly, how Alexander forgave the man that was responsible for the killings.
“It just changed the way I viewed life,” he said.
Murch has studied from a historical perspective mass incarceration, the war on drugs, black power and civil rights. Her book “Crack in Los Angeles: Policing the Crisis and the War on Drugs” looks at the militarization of law enforcement and the political economy of mass incarceration.
For one of her more recent books, “Living for the City: Migration, Education and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California,” Murch spent a lot of time in Oakland. She recounted the tale of black teenagers asking the then-Mayor Ronald Dellums — from 2007-2011 — for “grief centers” where they could receive counseling and support because many of their parents were incarcerated.
Murch also spoke about the Black Lives Matter movement and she is optimistic that the new generation of black youth is the “best equipped” to fight racial inequality in this country, especially as it pertains to police brutality and incarceration.
Private prisons and their role in mass incarceration also was discussed. Carroll said private prisons “leave the high-risk people to the state” and that “they have a vested interest in keeping their beds full.”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, for-profit prisons are responsible for 6 percent of state prisoners and 16 percent of federal prisoners.
Rhode Island experienced significant growth in its prison population between 2002 and 2008, but in the past five years the population has decreased by 18 percent, according to a report by the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (RIDOC).
According to the RIDOC, 197 out of every 100,000 Rhode Island residents are incarcerated, which is the third-lowest rate of incarceration in the country. In Rhode Island, 44 percent of sentenced offenders are white, followed by 30 percent African-American and 23 percent Hispanic.