FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
CHIDEYA: From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
America holds more of its citizens in prison than any other country in the world. A new Pew Research Study Center, says that one out of every hundred Americans is incarcerated. That's right, one out of every hundred. That's the first issue we're going to tackle on our Reporters Roundtable and with us today, John Yearwood, world editor for the Miami Herald. Michael Fletcher of the Washington Post. He's a national economics writer and former White House correspondent and Jennifer Gonnerman, contributing editor to New York Magazine. Happy leap day, folks.
Mr. JOHN YEARWOOD (Editor, Miami Herald): Hello. Hello.
Ms. JENNIFER GONNERMAN (Contributing Editor, New York Magazine) Hello.
Mr. MICHAEL FLETCHER (Washington Post): Thank you, Farai.
CHIDEYA: So, Jennifer, you do a lot of reporting on incarceration. First of all, is the rate up of incarceration because crime is up?
Ms. GONNERMAN: Well the relationship between the crime rate and the incarceration rate isn't quite as clear, obvious, as everybody might assume. But for the first time as you mentioned, we now have an even higher incarceration rate than previously. I mean several years back we passed the two million mark and now we are up to 2.3 million which translates to more than one in a hundred American adults now locked up in either jail or prison.
CHIDEYA: What's the implication of this for a nation which is going through all these other changes, immigration, baby boomers ageing. I mean from your perspective, what is this doing to the country?
Ms. GONNERMAN: Well you know, numbers don't even really begin to tell the story of the massive incarceration of America because you know, you lock one person up and in fact it's like you're locking up a whole family and sometimes like you're locking up an entire neighborhood since so many people are affected, economically, emotionally, and otherwise by the absence of somebody.
Now obviously there are some people that we want to see locked up and some locked up for quite a long time. But we've sort of gone way beyond that mark of such a large percentage of our population. It's having a real devastating effect on many communities, particularly communities of color in inner cities across the country.
CHIDEYA: John, Miami is a total cross section of the world and of ethnicity. What are you seeing there — Miami is also known for you know, huge crime scenes on the evening news, whether or not that accurately reflects the city is another thing. But how are these issues playing out in Miami?
Mr. YEARWOOD: Well Farai, you're seeing the same thing that you talked about in other parts of the country it's happening here. In fact, even more so here in Miami. In fact the same study that you cited talked about the fact that if you looked at Florida as a whole, by 2009 that the state is going to run out of prison capacity. I mean that's really startling information, particularly when you add that to the number of African—American males between the age of 20 and 34 who are incarcerated in this country. I think clearly there's a crisis out there that decision makers around the country need to deal with. And if there's any good news I guess, in the study, is that if you look at what's happening in Kansas and in Texas, they are making positive steps to reduce the problem. And if…
CHIDEYA: But what do you mean by that? Give us a little more information on what you're focusing on.
Mr. YEARWOOD: Well according to the study they said that both Kansas and Texas have taken decisions that have helped reduce the prison population in both states. And I think what's really important is that other leaders, governors in other states need to look at what's being done in these two states and try to emulate that in other parts of the country. What's interesting I felt, that if you look at the governors of both Kansas and Texas, one is a Republican, the other one is a Democrat. So there can be a bi-partisan solution to the problem.
CHIDEYA: Now Michael, let's take it out to a broader level of politics, presidential politics. In '88 some folks may remember the Willie Horton ads. It's part of the third rail of race crime in politics. Even if people begin to think that this is a major issue, incarceration, that needs to be addressed, is any of the presidential candidates going to touch it or is it still a third rail?
Mr. FLETCHER: I think it remains largely a third rail. I mean because you know, despite the factors that we've talked about and you look at what incarceration rates are doing to state budgets, it's really just putting another onus you know, on states to fund. The bottom line remains I think, that our incarceration policies are kind of politically popular you know, as odious as they may be. I mean just as incarceration has gone up, you know, crime has gone down and granted the link isn't clear. You know, such chicken and egg argument you know, because people talk about economic opportunity and things like that. So the feeling of reduction in crime demographics you know, the population of young people. But I think sort of for everyday voters, the fact that crime is reduced is kind of a paramount thing.
Because, if you think back not too many years ago, if you would have talked about the levels of murder we see now in this country and crime, while still high, they are much lower than they were years ago and you know, and people are happy about that.
CHIDEYA: Jennifer you wrote a book called "Life on the Outside" about a woman trying to get back into her life after spending years in prison. And you also talked earlier about how incarceration can affect whole families. What do you see happening? Anything positive on that front in terms of dealing with reentry?
Ms. GONNERMAN: Well it has been in the last say five years, much more attention paid to what happens once people leave prison, which I think is obviously very important. But the fact remains we spend most of our corrections budget putting people in prison and keeping them there and very little on turning people back into citizens once they are released. And over the last couple of decades at the same time that the number of people being locked up has grown, the barriers to some kind of successful reentry into society, have also grown.
So now you have all these people coming out of prison and they are essentially wearing almost an invisible scarlet letter. They're depending on the state and depending on the crime. They could be banned from certain jobs, from voting, from getting public housing, from getting a college loan, from certain welfare benefits. And that varies state by state. But it could have a devastating impact on a young person's future, particularly you know, people coming out in their 20s or 30s and trying to do the right thing. You know, it's sort of like an incredible barrier they have to overcome. So even if we do manage to lower these crazy incarceration rates, there's going to be very long term effects.
CHIDEYA: I'm going to touch on a couple more issues that are in the news and I'm going to start with you on this, Michael. America has never had a president born outside of the 50 United States. But Republican presidential candidate John McCain was actually born in the Panama Canal Zone. His father was serving in the Navy. And while it was U.S. territory, some people are now saying that it's bringing up these constitutional issues. The president has to be natural born. Does this really make a difference? What about that issue?
Mr. FLETCHER: Well I think you know, Senator McCain's lawyer would say no. But it's interesting. This is an issue that they've had legal staff research not only for this campaign and now they've hired Ted Olson, the former solicitor general to look at it again. But also back in 1999 when McCain ran for president, this issue was kind of researched by, you know, by his aides. I think most people think that, that obviously if his father is a military officer, he is you know, ordered to be in the Canal Zone. He's on a U.S. military installation at the time of Senator McCain's birth. You know, most people think that he'll pass muster. But it is kind of an interesting, legal question.
CHIDEYA: John, if this were Barack Obama, if Barack Obama had been born outside of the U.S., do you think it would be playing above the fold, as we say in the news business?
Mr. YEARWOOD: It probably would not. But Farai, I think this is largely an issue in which we're talking about something that at the end of day, really amounts to nothing. I mean in my situation, I was born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. My sense - and certainly I'm no constitutional scholar - but my sense is that our founding fathers were planning on intent, on keeping people like me from becoming president, not people like John McCain who clearly as has been demonstrated, was in the Canal Zone because that's where his father was on duty.
So I think what, at the end of the day, we're really talking about something that is really just trying to keep the chattering class occupied as we go through this very exciting presidential campaign. But at the end of it really, I don't think it's going to amount to much.
CHIDEYA: And Jennifer, the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was seeming to flirt with the presidential run at some point. He was born in Austria. Do you think at some point, if there's a popular candidate or potential candidate from outside the U.S. by birth, that these laws are gonna change?
Ms. GONNERMAN: I don't know. It's a very hard to call. I mean, I find it hard to believe that they would ever change those laws. But if they did, I suppose it would have to do with one person being incredibly popular. I don't know if Arnold Schwarzenegger's quite popular enough to make that happen, though.
CHIDEYA: John, let's talk about Kenya. The Kenyan government has reached a treaty with Raila Odinga's opposition party and more than a thousand people were killed in rioting in the past couple months after the disputed election. So from your perspective as a world editor, what do we need to look at in this story? What signs do we need to look for that Kenya can make this work?
Mr. YEARWOOD: Well Farai, certainly we got some good news out of Kenya. We've been following this for a month now, looking at the kind of devastation that this tribal conflict seemed to have wrought there, coming out of the election. What we need to look at going forward is whether or not this agreement that the different sides came up with yesterday can actually hold. And whether there are ultimately some sense of reconciliation in Kenya. By the way, I want to mention that Kofi Annan I think, did a tremendous job in bringing both sides together because, because of the length of negotiations, clearly it was not an easy thing to do. But certainly he waded into the middle of it and has come up with an agreement which I think over the long run, would be important and will show some signs of progress in Kenya.
But I think it's also extremely important that the international community, the United States and others, really weigh in and hold both sides to the agreement that was signed yesterday. Because if we turn our backs on Kenya as it seems that we did leading up to the last election, the result can be as devastating as we saw a month ago. So I think we really have to be vigilant going forward.
CHIDEYA: Michael, the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, made a trip to Kenya. Did that make a difference as well, the U.S. engagement?
Mr. FLETCHER: I think it does of course as John was saying. I think if the U.S. is paying attention, I think you know, I think people see it as more important and I think it kind of sort of puts the onus on people there to sort of, to work harder toward a resolution. I think that makes a huge difference.
CHIDEYA: Jennifer, just briefly, you think this is going to work out?
Ms. GONNERMAN: I think it definitely is. It's very promising news coming out of a region that hadn't had that in a while.
CHIDEYA: All right, well, guys, thanks so much.
Ms. GONNERMAN: Thank you, Farai.
Mr. YEARWOOD: Thank you, Farai.
Mr. FLETCHER: Thanks so much.
We've been talking to Jennifer Gonnerman, contributing editor to New York Magazine; John Yearwood, world editor for the Miami Herald and he joined me from WLRN news studios at the Miami Herald; and Michael Fletcher, national economics writer and former White House correspondence for the Washington Post.