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Bowdoin alum addresses race, crime and COVID-19

October 13, 2020

Cara Drinan ’96, a professor of law at the Catholic University of America, joined Bowdoin students and faculty on October 7 for a virtual discussion titled “Race, Crime and COVID-19.” Drinan has become a prominent figure in the battle for criminal justice reform, specializing in the right to counsel and juvenile sentencing.

The event was the first in an ongoing series called “Race and Criminal Justice,” co-sponsored by the Sexuality, Women and Gender Center (SWAG); the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good; the Center for Multicultural Life and the Criminal Justice Reform Club.

As the country grapples simultaneously with the COVID-19 pandemic and a national reckoning on race, Drinan’s talk stressed that these issues cannot be considered independently of each other. Instead, she emphasized the way our current public health crisis has highlighted underlying issues in a criminal justice system that has been plaguing our nation since its inception.

“Our system has always been broken, in my opinion, but I think people are seeing that with fresh eyes during this pandemic,” Drinan said in an interview with the Orient.

She began by drawing attention to the risk COVID-19 transmission poses to incarcerated Americans. According to Drinan, full capacity correctional facilities rival cruise ships in their ability to incubate the disease.

“Because of how lethal those environments are, many short sentences have been converted to potential life sentences,” she said.

Drinan revealed that there are currently over 2 million people incarcerated in the United States of America, making up about a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

“The land of the free has become the world’s largest jailer,” said Drinan.

But it wasn’t always this way. Mass incarceration is a relatively new phenomenon, with the number of incarcerated people in the United States rising dramatically in the past few decades.

“In my lifetime alone, we’ve seen an eightfold increase in our incarcerated population,” said Drinan. “That’s just a shocking explosion.”

Drinan described how an surge in violent crime in the 1960s led to a series of “tough on crime” policies embraced by both major political parties in the following decades. However, she explained, these policies became ingrained in national policy, taking on a much larger role.

“It was an era where incarceration became the answer to deeply complex social problems, like mental illness, substance abuse, poverty, unemployment,” said Drinan. “All of that, we answered with incarceration.”

In addition to a rising incarceration rate, Drinan cited the increase in average sentence length among U.S. prisoners. According to Drinan, one out of every seven people incarcerated in the United States is serving life or virtual life sentences.

Compared to most European countries, where the longest criminal punishment is 20 years, Drinan asserts that the existence and prevalence of life sentences make the United States an outlier in the global arena.

The criminal justice system’s reach extends far beyond the incarcerated population, though. Drinan spouted off staggering figures: 4.5 million Americans are under correctional supervision, and 77 million have criminal records.

After establishing the magnitude of the United States’ mass incarceration issue, Drinan turned her attention to the race and economic inequities embedded in criminal justice.

“Race matters at every junction of our system,” she said. “Mass incarceration has not affected Americans equally. Instead, our correctional practices have had a devastating impact on poor people—and in particular, poor communities of color.”

Drinan turned to statistics to convey the enormity of this disparity: Blacks and Latinos make up roughly 30 percent of America’s population, yet they compose 60 percent of the correctional population.

“There is overwhelming evidence,” said Drinan, “that this overrepresentation, this disproportionate minority contact, is a function of systemic racism.”

With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and a demand for racial justice around the country, Drinan remains hopeful that the pandemic will be a catalyst for concrete change.

“Within the criminal justice reform community, there is a shared, albeit cautious, sense of optimism that this will be a moment of true reckoning,” she said.

A proud Bowdoin alumna herself, Drinan ended the night by urging Bowdoin students to use the tools available to them to educate themselves and others.

“Regardless of where you come from, your resources, your race or your background, if you are a student at Bowdoin College in 2020, you are a person of privilege,” she said. “You are going to walk away with the ability to use your voice.”

In November, the “Race and Criminal Justice” series will continue with a panel discussion of recent Bowdoin graduates who are working in the field of criminal justice. Panelists will include Briana Cardwell ’17, Bill De La Rosa ’16, and Monica Bouyea ’14. The spring semester will bring a speaker with lived experience in the criminal justice system to the series.

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