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Book outlines a public health approach to ending mass incarceration

Brooklyn BookBeat

February 1, 2018 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Book editor Ernest Drucker. Courtesy of The New Press
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With more than 2.2 million people imprisoned in the U.S. today, bipartisan support to end mass incarceration, the task of decarcerating America, is both daunting and urgent. What comes after the prison industrial complex? How do we reduce the number of people in prisons and jails without endangering public safety?

In “Decarcerating America: From Mass Punishment to Public Health” epidemiologist Ernest Drucker, the author of “A Plague of Prisons,” assembles original essays from experts across the criminal justice reform movement to offer one of the first concrete and constructive sets of proposals for bringing our incarceration rate in line with that of other democracies. Using a public health approach involving primary, secondary and tertiary interventions, this anthology offers a cogent answer to the “epidemic of mass incarceration.” “Decarcerating America” will be onsale Feb. 20.

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In 2018, the issues detailed in “Decarcerating America” will continue to play out in courts and on the national stage. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will do battle with the states on the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana. The forthcoming closure of the notorious Rikers Island prison complex is sure to spark questions about public safety and set the model for large-scale decarceration in other cities. With New Jersey now leading the way, more states are choosing to abandon the practice of jailing defendants who cannot afford bail. Court systems across the country are being sued, and bail funds are being created to subvert the system, which is responsible for a large portion of the jail population around the country.

“Decarcerating America” is divided into three sections, corresponding to the primary, secondary and tertiary approaches to tackling a public health crisis. The first section offers primary or “front door” proposals from some of the nation’s leading criminologists, public defenders, grassroots organizers, and a federal judge on ways to significantly reduce the number of people entering prisons. Perspectives include lessons drawn from New York City’s grass-roots success story in lowering incarceration rates while increasing public safety — as reported this January, crime rates have dropped to levels not seen since the 1950s — to California’s own prison downsizing; Judge Robert Sweet’s call for judges to oppose mandatory minimum sentences and develop diversion alternatives from the bench; and how holistic approaches to public defense like that of The Bronx Defenders’ and drug policy reform are integral to this front door approach. Readers will find the primary intervention tier especially relevant in light of the movement to end cash bail, implemented this year in New York City and on the docket for debate in multiple states.

In section two, experts offer secondary-level interventions to help those already in prison, along with their families and victims. Common Justice’s Executive Director Danielle Sered argues for the adoption of restorative justice practices that treat violence not as a matter of individual pathology but as part of systems of poverty and inequity. Children’s advocates advance six practical reforms to ease the traumas of arrest, imprisonment, and reentry on children and other family members. Leaders in health services argue for better care for the incarcerated population, while grassroots organizers argue for the large-scale release of elderly prisoners who pose the lowest risk to public safety.

The final section offers tertiary preventions to address concerns and challenges posed by the re-entry of incarcerated people into society. Health policy expert Daliah Heller argues for universal healthcare coverage — with targeted enrollment and retention of incarcerated individuals and their families — as a vehicle through which to interrupt the negative feedback loops created by mass incarceration. Kathy Boudin urges lawmakers to tap the wisdom of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals to draft strategies on reentry.

Drawing on her successful work with the Department of Veteran Affairs, Jeannie Little and her co-authors call for harm reduction therapy to address substance use, mental health disorders, and socioeconomic problems faced by those leaving prison. And, scholar Eric Lotke suggests best practices for converting prison economies, including how to work alongside unions representing prison employees to navigate prison closures and redevelopment.

From courtroom to confinement to community, “Deecarcerating America” is necessary reading for anyone involved in criminal justice, health care and social services professionally or at a grass-roots level.

 


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