A Glimpse Inside The Bid To Reduce The U.S. Incarceration Rate
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to spend some time now talking about incarceration. You might know that the U.S. actually has the largest prison population in the world. You might also have noticed that it isn't just activists who are talking about this right now. Officials across the ideological spectrum are starting to question whether the cost of incarcerating so many people - the economic costs, the social and political costs are worth it. And we're going begin by hearing by Melba Pearson. She is a prosecutor in the Miami-Dade state's attorney's office in Florida. She's president of the National Black Prosecutors Association, and she was part of a group of law-enforcement officials that recently met with President Obama to talk about strategies to reduce America's high incarceration rate. Pearson came to our studios to explain why she decided to join this effort.
MELBA PEARSON: I've been a prosecutor for 15 years. And during that time, I've come across all sorts of people. And a lot of recurring themes drive crime. A lot of it can be as a result of addiction. A lot of it can be as a result of mental health. And many times, our criminal justice system is not equipped to deal with those issues. And people are offending because of the simple fact that they're not getting the treatment they need.
MARTIN: Well, why are you addressing mandatory minimums? What is the - and are there other things that you, as a member of this coalition, want to accomplish?
PEARSON: Mandatory minimums is a concern, especially when it comes to drug offenses. You have to look at everything on a case-by-case basis, and you have a look at the wider impact it's going to have because at the end of the day, as prosecutors and as law enforcement, we are charged with protecting society. But we have to make sure we're doing it in an evenhanded manner.
MARTIN: Yeah, I have to ask you about the mandatory minimums because it's my understanding that, you know, mandatory minimums have actually been the prosecutor's friend. So why would you want to give that up?
PEARSON: We have to look at the disparities. We have to look at the trends. Things that worked in the past don't necessarily work today. And we are now a more enlightened society, so we can't use draconian methods when it's proven that it no longer works.
MARTIN: So what's your best evidence that it doesn't work?
PEARSON: Well, I think the best evidence that it doesn't work is now the latest legislation that's come out to address the crack and cocaine disparities. You know, and that's a wrong that's now been righted. So we have to just basically just look at what's in place and see what makes sense.
MARTIN: I just wanted to ask - you know, we're in a certain moment when there is perceived to be a lot of attention - there is - why am I saying perceived to be? There is some tension between some elements of the African-American community and law enforcement. It's perceived to be a relationship that's at a particularly tense moment. I just wondered what's this been like for you - how to navigate this at this current moment?
PEARSON: It - for me personally, it's been an interesting journey. I write a lot. I speak a lot. And I spend time talking to offenders, and I will pull them to the side and tell them to get their lives right because I take that personally because, you know, the offenders as well as the victims look like me. So I have an interest in them getting their lives together because I really don't want to see them back in the courtroom. I want to see them get their lives on the right path. Yes, it's difficult because people do accuse you of - oh, you know, you're just part of the man and this and that. But again...
MARTIN: Well, I could see it going in the other way. I could see people accusing you of being sympathetic to, you know, offenders because of your background. I could see people accusing you of a lot of things, basically.
PEARSON: I take whatever accusations in stride because the reality is this - I'm there to do a job, and my job is to seek justice. And if the truth of the matter is you committed a crime, you violated a person, then you need to stand in judgment before the courts of this land and accept responsibility for what you did.
MARTIN: You, among other members of the coalition that you are a part of, met with President Obama in the White House this past Thursday. What do you hope this group will accomplish, and are you optimistic?
PEARSON: I am optimistic. I hope that more law enforcement and prosecutors across the country will join us in this effort that - on a grander scale, that the goal would be that we're reinvesting in our communities and that the prisons are being reserved for those who need to be there - the most violent among us, those who are shooting our kids, who are, you know, terrorizing our neighborhoods. Those are the people that need to be in prison.
MARTIN: Melba Pearson is a member of the new group Law Enforcement to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. She's president of the National Black Prosecutors Association, and she is an attorney for the Miami-Dade state's attorney's office, where she's the assistant chief of the Career Criminal and Robber Unit, if you're interested to know that. So she certainly knows whereof she speaks. Melba Pearson, thanks so much for speaking with us.
PEARSON: Thank you, Michel.
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