Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend a film screening of the documentary Incarcerating US, an event sponsored by the Black Law Student Association and WVU Law’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter. The film explored many aspects of the American criminal justice system, but focused primarily on our nation’s growing prison problem. With a prison population of 2.3 million people, the United States of America has the largest prison population in the world today. While the United States represents only about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, our nation houses 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. These statistics should alarm us all.
Incarcerating US attempted to explain the causes of American prison overpopulation by highlighting the failures of two major policies crafted during the 1970s – the “War on Drugs” and the implementation of mandatory minimum sentences. The film featured a multitude of persuasive examples that argued that the “War on Drugs” unjustifiably shifted the attention of law enforcement investigation from high-level drug producers and suppliers to common drug users. Further, by statutorily requiring judges to sentence drug offenders to a mandatory minimum sentence, the film argued that the legislature removed the ability of judges to evaluate sentencing on a case by case basis. Coupled together, these two policies resulted in the increase of non-violent drug offenders being sentenced to lengthy prison terms in numbers that have grown exponentially over the past forty years.
Following the film, guests enjoyed a discussion on reentry after incarceration held by a panel consisting of assistant U.S. Attorney Betsy Jividen, WVU Associate Professor of Law Valena Beety, and two formerly incarcerated individuals who had successfully reintegrated after the completion of their sentences. Hearing firsthand accounts of the challenges that former prisoners face after their release was an incredibly moving experience. As future lawyers, we should strive to assist these people in reintegrating. Not only can we help to reduce recidivism, but we can help reentering individuals become contributing members of society.