Wake Up: The Sentencing Project launches new campaign to end mass incarceration

Wake Up: The Sentencing Project launches new campaign to end mass incarceration

The public education campaign marks the convergence of 50 years of mass incarceration and 50 years of Hip-Hop music in the US

The Sentencing Project, a non-profit promoting humane responses to crime, launched a public education campaign titled “50 Years and A Wake Up: Ending the Mass Incarceration Crisis in America.” 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of mass incarceration in America, with the burden of incarceration falling disproportionately on Black and brown people. At a press conference on Wednesday, Amy Fettig, Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, emphasized that “mass incarceration is not a given; it is a historical anomaly.” 

The campaign, Fettig explained, is named after a common phrase used when “expressing the duration of their sentence plus one day. For example, someone incarcerated would have “20 years and a wake up” until they are released. In pursuit of the campaign’s objective to “wake up” America to the consequences of mass incarceration, The Sentencing Project published two new reports. 

The first report, “Mass Incarceration Trends,” highlighted the racial disparities within the prison system. Data shows that Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, and Latinx men are 2.5 times as likely to be incarcerated. The second report, “Ending 50 Years of Mass Incarceration: Urgent Reform Needed to Protect Future Generations,” revealed that, though mass incarceration rates are currently decreasing, if they continue to do so at the current rate, it would take until 2098 for the statistics to reflect 1972’s pre-mass incarceration prison population. 

To discuss these findings and lend support to the campaign, Nicole Austin-Hillery, President & CEO at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF), Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), Lisa Wayne, Executive Director at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), Tanya Clay House,  Executive Vice President of the Hip Hop Caucus (HHC), and Marta Nelson, director of government strategy at the Vera Institute of Justice, joined the panel on Feb. 8.

"Mass incarceration is not a given; it is a historical anomaly.”

Nicole Austin-Hillery stated that mass incarceration was a familiar issue for the CBCF, which aims to empower the global Black community through ensuring a steady Black leadership pipeline. She explained that “the issues we are seeing play out in the country right now,” including the recent killing of Tyre Nichols, are “related to the mass incarceration issue.” The CBCF will be presenting the data from the two reports from The Sentencing Project to lawmakers at both the federal and state levels, to ensure that they “have the tools they need to make policy decisions.”

Dorsey Nunn, who is a previously incarcerated individual, emphasized the economic reality of mass incarceration: “most people just see me as a criminal, as opposed to a slave of state.” Underpinning his work as Executive Director at LSPC, Nunn believes that removing the profit margin is crucial to ending mass incarceration: “we’re being sold in auction, where people can’t see it.” He continued,“when people are putting out fires in the state of California, we’re on the frontlines too for less than a dollar an hour.”

Lisa Wayne, who worked as a criminal defense lawyer for 37 years, began by recognizing her own, intrinsic contributions to mass incarceration as a defense lawyer. Wayne focused on the ongoing issues of forced guilty pleas and harsh sentencing, emphasizing that “if you don’t have effective representation, it leads to mass incarceration.”

Clay House, representing the HHC, discussed the more positive significance of 2023, which is that it marks 50 years of hip hop music. Not only did the genre revolutionize music, she said, but it has been “equally transformative in American politics” as a voice for the Black community. Clay House said that “as a Black woman, as a member of the hip hop generation, I am keenly aware of the impact of mass incarceration in the community. As an attorney by trade, I understand how mass incarceration has contributed to the violation of the rights of Black Americans, including the right to vote.”

"most people just see me as a criminal, as opposed to a slave of state."

What next? The final speaker, Marta Nelson of the Vera Institute of Justice, proposed three guidelines for lawmakers to follow. First, we should shift away from our current sentencing structure towards one that presumes that all people have a right to liberty. Second, we should center sentencing on what delivers actual, rather than performative safety. This involves giving community based sentences as often as possible. Lastly, lawmakers should center the needs of survivors of crime when making solutions, rather than defaulting to long prison sentences. 

Austin-Hillery left the audience with a concluding thought: “we have to own the messaging around this. We have to stop allowing people to conflate the issues. Because you support ending mass incarceration does not mean that you don’t also want to focus on lowering crime in communities. It is not an either or.” 


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