On Tuesday evening, journalist and bestselling author Emily Bazelon spoke to the Bowdoin community about the role of prosecutors in contributing to systemic mass incarceration. Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine, the Truman Capote Fellow for Creative Writing and Law at Yale Law School and co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest podcast.
The talk was part of the Kenneth V. Santagata Memorial Lecture series and was hosted by Janet Lohmann, senior vice president and dean for Student Affairs, who has a PhD in sociology and has taught courses in criminology and race relations.
In the midst of the Derek Chauvin trial and the national focus on criminal justice reform, Bazelon’s expertise on systemic issues contributing to mass incarceration provided context for discussing the current moment.
Bazelon opened her lecture by outlining the thesis of her new book, “Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration.” While factors such as mandatory minimum sentences and three strike laws contribute to rising incarceration rates, Bazelon explained how the role given to prosecutors grants them influence on incarceration rates.
“The power of prosecutors is this underappreciated factor in explaining how the number of people incarcerated in our country has quintupled since the 1980s,” Bazelon said. “Our prosecutors are taking advantage of new powers that they’re given by state law.”
Bazelon emphasized that the power wielded by prosecutors allows them to exercise racial bias and augment the system of criminalization to be consistent with their own internalized beliefs.
“One of the key ways in which prosecutors come into office and try to reshape the criminal justice system is by changing the very nature of who is a criminal,” Bazelon said. “But I think it’s important to also remember that we are effectively criminalizing Black people for doing something that white people are also doing.”
Though this disproportionate power has deep systemic roots, Bazelon expressed that voter mobilization, especially at the local level, has begun to produce positive change through opposition to existing norms.
“As mass incarceration became more and more of a problem in the United States, and addressing it more of a political cause, local groups and national groups and civil rights groups, but even some Black Lives Matter groups, started really getting behind a new kind of candidate for office for District Attorney,” Bazelon said.
Lohmann expressed her appreciation of Bazelon’s attention to grassroots efforts.
“She helped show that criminal justice policy is local and that community involvement can change how policies are enacted,” Lohmann wrote in an email to the Orient.
Bazelon argued that elected officials are not only becoming more representative of their communities, but also enacting effective and progressive change.
“These progressive prosecutors were taking office, [and] incarceration was starting to drop in their cities,” Bazelon said. “They were doing other really interesting things like addressing innocence cases from the past and trying to come up with diversion programs that bring social work services into people’s lives.”
Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History Brian Purnell attended the talk on Tuesday evening and explained that his class “Race, Crime and Law in the United States” has also considered the role of progressive prosecutors in enacting change.
“[In the class] we examine how Black people in the United States experience underprotection of the law and over-policing of law enforcement,” Purnell said in a phone interview with the Orient. “In the current system, statistically, culturally, politically … [the] war on crime and [the] war on drugs [have] been [wars] on Black people. Is there such a thing as a good prosecutor?”
Bazelon emphasized that in addition to electing progressive prosecutors, community investment is instrumental to mitigating incarceration. However, this effort is not without its challenges, as alternatives to incarceration are difficult to implement.
In a time where cases relating to criminal and racial justice are drawing national attention, Bazelon encouraged students to act on the sense of urgency they may feel in order to implement change.
“It’s one thing to have principles and ideas in the abstract, and it’s another one to lift them out,” she said.