…And We Can Do Better!
Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) applauds the general direction charted by various campaigns and initiatives to reduce prison populations in the United States by 50 percent within the next 10 years. But we also note the research indicating the difficulties in meeting this goal, especially given the current predominant ideas centered around focusing on “non-violent offenders.” Additionally, we note our concern that a 50 percent target still will not put the United States into the position of claiming a humane degree and system of punishment. Thus, a crucial determinant of the significance of this movement is how to frame and guide realistic approaches and initiatives.
RAPP’s objective is to reduce the prison population in New York State by encouraging policy makers and correctional officials to employ mechanisms—such as parole and compassionate release—that already exist but are drastically underutilized. We encourage use of such mechanisms based on actual risk to public safety. In other words, we advocate the release of people who are over the age of 50, have already served long terms of incarceration, and pose no risk to public safety—let all of them go.
Today, a significant percent of the older population of incarcerated people consists of people convicted for violent crimes. In New York State, for example, more than 63 percent of incarcerated people over the age of 50 have convictions for violent offenses. The proportion in the federal system is even higher, at nearly 75 percent. As reforms focused on non-violence continue to reduce the number of people in prison systems, the proportion of elderly people convicted of violent crimes will continue to grow.
Excluding these people from downsizing considerations will work against the overall goal of sustained reduction of prison populations. It will also fail to further the key purpose of incarceration—safeguarding public safety. Numerous studies of recidivism, including an extensive investigation by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, conclude that the very lowest rates of recidivism occur among older people incarcerated for long terms for violent crimes. In fact, the very lowest recidivism risk occurs among those convicted of first-degree murder. Counterintuitive perhaps, but based on facts. And reason should prevail.
In order to achieve the important efforts outlined by the 50 percenters and possibly take the initiative they launched to a much broader scale, we urge all people who are sincerely interested in addressing the issue of mass incarceration in the United States to ask three fundamental questions about the efforts and initiatives they engage in:
- Does your campaign, project, or initiative get to the heart of the matter by recognizing and dealing with the inextricable issue of “race” as it affects and defines mass incarceration?
- Does your campaign, project, or initiative get to another chamber of the heart by recognizing and dealing with the inextricable issues of “class” and “economics” as they impact upon mass incarceration?
- Does your campaign, project, or initiative understand the intrinsic danger of offering up “sacrificial lambs” to appease would be supporters of dismantling mass incarceration?
Having these three questions as a basis of engagement would take us a long way to success.
Mujahid Farid is a 2013 Soros Justice Fellow and the lead organizer for Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) Campaign. He can be reached at 212-254-5700 ext. 317 or firstname.lastname@example.org.