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Panel Offers Historical Perspective on Prison Reform

The National History Center hosted a panel discussion in Rayburn on Oct. 9. (Hugh T. Ferguson/CQ Roll Call)
The National History Center hosted a panel discussion in Rayburn on Oct. 9. (Hugh T. Ferguson/CQ Roll Call)

A trio of criminal justice experts spoke on a panel last week on Capitol Hill with the hope that Congress will take their knowledge into account when crafting policy for an overhaul of the system.  

The promise of a prison sentencing overhaul in the United States is gaining momentum, with bipartisan legislation introduced this month in the Senate. But while policy has been implemented to reduce incarceration rates — including the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s decision last year to lessen the punishment for federal drug offenders and President Barack Obama’s recent executive actions — the experts cited lingering concerns. The National History Center , an organization looking to broaden the role of historical knowledge in public decision-making and policy, hosted the discussion on the history of incarceration in the United States.  

The panel’s goal in this ongoing series is to address members of Congress. While the audience of some 30 people was made up mostly of academics and advocates, the hourlong discussion in the Rayburn building helped give a historical context to the current mass incarceration system and potential legislation to address it.  

Alex Lichtenstein, a professor at Indiana University who has written extensively on the history of prison labor, said the system of incarceration needs more than small fixes.  

“If the prison rate were to be cut in half it would still be three to four times the historically normal rate,” he said.  

Lichtenstein also warned that the history of prison reform has brought on unintentional forms of repression — like penal laws, convict leasing and the chain gang. But he did not dissuade politicians from pursuing bipartisan reform and instead sought to strike a cautionary tone.  

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, whose research focuses on racial criminalization in modern U.S. history, helped illuminate the manners in which prisons have been used as a mechanism to disenfranchise freed slaves and push false narratives on black culture.  

“Black crime statistics were used to show black dysfunction and that religion or education would have no influence,” he said.  

He said a prison overhaul needs a whole-hearted approach and that a general cap on incarceration rates would help. Systemic societal problems, like drug abuse and violence, need to be resolved with the aid of other institutions, he said.  

Heather Ann Thompson writes about the history and current crises of mass incarceration. Her research shows that prison reform has been largely shaped by economic concerns and that solutions came with bipartisan support, but that the implementation has been flawed.  

“Policy created an enormous crisis that undermined the economy making so many people unemployable,” she said. “It destroyed democracy by taking away the right to vote. By doing this, we made a policy choice that had dire repercussions.”


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