After Paris: Sentencing in America Under Scrutiny The recent case of Hollywood socialite Paris Hilton is renewing debates about criminal justice in America; the U.S. jails more of its residents than any other nation in the world. Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project is joined by Jenni Gainsborough of Penal Reform International to discuss who should be locked up and why.
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After Paris: Sentencing in America Under Scrutiny

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After Paris: Sentencing in America Under Scrutiny

After Paris: Sentencing in America Under Scrutiny

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program: the mental health crisis facing New Orleans, and using satellites for human rights.

But first, she was in right, then she was out, then she was in again. Yes, Paris Hilton's jailhouse odyssey has kept cable news humming all weekend. But the story does raise legitimate questions about our criminal justice system. Who gets locked up? Who doesn't, and why? And does this approach to criminal justice make America safer?

Joining us now in the studio to discuss the broader implications of the Hilton is Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project here on Washington. Also with us is Jenni Gainsborough of Penal Reform International, which tracks criminal justice methods worldwide.

Thank you both for coming in.

Mr. MARC MAUER (Assistant Director, The Sentencing Project): Good to be here.

MARTIN: Marc, judging from the headlines, it just seems that this story has struck a nerve. I mean, many Americans just seemed outraged by this. Why do you think that is?

Mr. MAUER: Well, I think it just taps into some fundamental, you know, problems that people have with how justice is dispensed in this country. And in far too many cases, justice is how much justice you can afford, what kind of resources you have, that - we say that our nation believes in equal justice under law, but I think what this case shows - regardless of the merits of Paris Hilton's medical condition - is that the amount of justice you get into consideration again is very much influenced by who you are and how much money you have.

MARTIN: But you're saying is influenced by who you are, but there - a counter-argument emerged over the weekend that it isn't that she got too lenient treatment because she's a celebrity and quite wealthy and so forth and had aggressive representation, but that, perhaps, in fact, she was being penalized for being a celebrity and that the system wanted to send a message. So I guess, just for the sake of understanding this, what is typical for this kind of violation? She violated probation on a drunk driving charge. What's typical?

Mr. MAUER: Well, it's hard to say what's typical. I mean, it's not completely out of the question that a person could get 45 days in jail for violating that probation, but also probation officers and judges have a good deal of discretion. It's possible they could have put more controls in her or someone like her and have her live at home, or just put her in jail for a weekend essentially to let her know that the system was being serious about this.

So I think, in part, it reflects the sort of dichotomy in understanding about how we should treat celebrities. You know, some people - the sheriff, it seems, may have been influenced by her celebrity or maybe was afraid of something, you know, unpleasant happening to her in the jail and other people are concerned about not appearing to give celebrities a break, as it were.

MARTIN: But is it about celebrity, or is it about drunk driving?

Mr. MAUER: Well, I think, it's a little both. But there's all sorts of drunk drivers in Los Angeles and around the country, you know, who are treated in different ways. Very few of us could name - give the names of any of them right off the top of our heads, so she clearly is the one who stands out among the tens of thousands of people who are processed through the court on drunk driving charges. And clearly, you know, we're focusing on her as a drunk driver, as a person, as a celebrity, and a celebrity who people have strong emotions about. You love her or you hate her, basically, and that's how people respond.

MARTIN: Jenni, you track criminal justice frameworks around the world. How do other countries handle these kinds of cases? I mean, for example, first of all, is drunk driving considered a serious crime in the rest of the world?

Ms. JENNI GAINSBOROUGH (Senior Policy Analyst, Penal Reform International): It's certainly considered a very serious crime in countries like us, in Western industrialized countries. In fact, it was taken seriously really earlier in other countries than I think it was in the U.S.

In Scandinavia, which we tend to think as a very liberal country, more than 30 years ago, had very tough sanctions against people who drove drunk. People realized that it's a very dangerous crime, although it, you know, it doesn't seem as serious as homicide - deliberate homicide, it carries that same potential with it.

MARTIN: But when you say tough sanctions, what are we talking about? Are we talking about incarceration?

Ms. GAINSBOROUGH: Yes, in some instances. But, of course, this is where we get into the big difference between what happens in the U.S. and what happens in the rest of the world. The rest - other industrialized countries may take a crime very seriously and sanction it heavily by their standards, but that's likely to be very different than the kinds of punishments in the U.S. because our punishments overall are so much harsher than in most of the rest of the world.

MARTIN: Well, give me an example. What are you saying? Are you saying that Americans tend to incarcerate - that the United States incarcerates more people than the rest of the - its peers, sort of industrialized, developed countries?

Ms. GAINSBOROUGH: Not only peers in industrialized Western countries. The United States puts more people in prison than any other country in the world, period. We have the harshest prison sentences that are given anywhere. And that's really the difference here.

The reason why we have such a big prison population isn't because we necessarily give prison sentences for more crimes, though in some instances we do. But we give much, much longer sentences for these same crimes that people commit in other countries, and that's really what drives our big population.

MARTIN: Let's talk about - the same weekend, George Michael, the British pop star, was arrested for drunk driving in the U.K. He's a repeat offender. He was given probation and a heavy fine. Is that considered to be a stiff punishment?

Ms. GAINSBOROUGH: Yes, I think it is. I mean, a heavy fine - though, of course, you would get into an issue with somebody who's very wealthy about what a heavy fine is. I mean, in some instances, in some countries, they take that into account. And a scale of fines will take into consideration how wealthy a person is so that a heavy fine really is a heavy fine, but it's not absolutely crippling for somebody who's poor and it is something that somebody who's fairly wealthy feels as if they may…

MARTIN: Oh, that's interesting. So one could, in fact, have a sliding scale of fines, depending on the person's resources.

Ms. GAINSBOROUGH: Exactly.

MARTIN: That is not an approach we tend to take in the U.S.?

Ms. GAINSBOROUGH: You'd have to ask Marc that question.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. GAINSBOROUGH: He's the expert on the U.S. ones.

Mr. MAUER: Well, there's been a couple of experiments in doing that. It's usually called something like day fines. It began in Germany. It's tried a couple of jurisdictions here, and essentially says we'll fine you so many days of your earnings, basically. So the sort of day laborers making minimum wage or little more and pays that amount. But the, you know, if Donald Trump is convicted of something, he's daily earnings are much more substantial.

And so the idea is to make the fine a more credible punishment so that we don't base it on personal wealth and income.

MARTIN: Now, the question of whether a celebrity has received fair or unfair treatment is not generally an issue that engages you, Marc, as I understand it. So what is your - you and your organization's key concern about sentencing disparities? What's the issue that typically engages you?

Mr. MAUER: Well, I think, in many cases, you know, we have a real divide between the rich and the poor in this country. And the crimes of the poor are punished very harshly. Very often, we look at the war in drugs. You know, it's been the single most significant factor contributing to the world record prison population of the last 20 years, and it's been waged largely in low-income communities of color. And we know that drug abuse cuts across lines of race and class, but drug use and abuse in middle-income communities, upper-income communities is treated as a family problem, a health problem. We deal with it through treatment approaches.

In low-income communities, we don't have those same resources, so we're much likely to treat it as criminal justice problem.

MARTIN: And when you talk about drug use, are you talking about drug trafficking or are you talking about using, as in - you know, alcohol…

Mr. MAUER: Yeah.

MARTIN: …can be considered a drug under the - for purposes of the criminal justice system.

Mr. MAUER: Yes.

MARTIN: So are you talking about people who are using, are you talking about people who are distributing?

Mr. MAUER: Well, we see it in both ways, I think, certainly. And, you know, we have both low-level drug users and drug sellers in our prison system. Even the people in the suburbs, they're getting their drugs from someone who's selling to them, and very often the person is someone they know, another seller, somebody who lives in their community as well. So…

MARTIN: But what is your evidence that, in fact, drug use is treated more as a treatment issue in middle-class communities than it is in poorer communities?

Mr. MAUER: Well, I think we can see from government studies that drug abuse does cut across these lines of race and class. We've got good data on that from the Health and Human Services. And if we look at arrest rates, incarceration rates, three quarters of the people in prison for a drug crime are African-American and Latino, far out of proportion to the degree that they use drugs or sell drugs. So how the war on drugs is waged is very much determined by place and by race and ethnicity.

MARTIN: And when you talk about incarceration for drug crimes, are you talking about violent offenses or non-violent offenses?

Mr. MAUER: No. Non-violent offenses. So - well, yes, there are some drug sellers who use guns or possess guns, and their senses are enhance because of that. The vast majority of people locked up for a drug crime have been convicted of using or selling drugs. And so, you know, let's leave aside the ones who committed violence at the moment or so. So if some of these people are high-level kingpins, flying in drugs by the planeload, most people don't have much sympathy for them. But they represent a relative handful of all of the people incarcerated for drug offense. Most of the people in there are in the lower and middle levels of the drug trade, not the kingpins.

MARTIN: Jenni, we're down to our last couple of minutes. I wanted to ask you, both of your groups oppose the death penalty and both of your groups believe in less incarceration rather than more. Jenni, why are you so convinced that working against enhanced incarceration is a better approach toward criminal justice?

Ms. GAINSBOROUGH: Because what we're aiming for is a system that gives us the greatest public safety, and that we achieve by dealing with the underlying causes of crime. Certainly, there need to be sanctions against people who break the law, but all the research suggest that a short sharp sanction is far more effective than a long prison sentence, which destabilizes families and communities, and rarely doesn't do any good in terms of making the country safer.

MARTIN: There were those who would argue that drunk driving is an extremely destructive crime. It is extremely destructive behavior, and it has to be sanctioned because otherwise, it sends the message that this is a victim - it is not victimless, as you know, a car weighs several tons. It can be a lethal weapon. It can be indiscriminate, and that this conduct simply has got to be addressed sharply.

Ms. GAINSBOROUGH: I don't think anybody is saying that it shouldn't be sanctioned. The point is what's the most effective way of doing it. And if you're talking about the casual social drinker, then a short sharp sentence can be effective. If you're talking about somebody with a serious alcohol abuse problem - which is the case in most repeat drunk and driving - you've got to deal with that if you want to make the place safer.

MARTIN: And, Mark, the same question to you. Why are you so convinced that less incarceration rather than more yields better results for public safety?

Mr. MAUER: Well, for a start, we spend $25,000 a year to keep a person in prison. If that person's a repeat armed robber, again, that's a serious crime. That's why prisons are there. But when we have people for whom their crimes were related to failures of social and economic institutions that can be addressed in a community setting under appropriate supervision, I think we don't have the negative influence that prison provides, and also we can get people more constructive options to reduce - increase public safety.

MARTIN: Isn't treatment also expensive?

Mr. MAUER: Treatment is expensive, but dollar for dollar, you know, generally, we're better off investing a dollar in treatment than a dollar in committing new prison cell construction. The long-term benefits of the community are much better that way.

MARTIN: So, in fact, I guess maybe the message you withdraw from this Paris Hilton story is it's not the one that, you know, the rich get away with murder as it were, but that perhaps, we as a society, ought to rethink our commitment to or sort of bias toward incarceration for everybody.

Mr. MAUER: Well, I think we need to level the playing field. You know, it may be appropriate that Paris Hilton should have been let out after a few days. I don't know what her medical or psychological issues were, but if we look at the people in jail today that she is incarcerated in, well over half of them have drug or alcohol problems, have medical issues and all sorts of things. And maybe we should begin to take a look at what those look like, too, and what's the best way to respond to that.

MARTIN: Marc Mauer is executive director of the Sentencing Project here in Washington. And Jenni Gainsborough is the Washington office director of Penal Reform International. They joined us here in the studio. Thank you both so much coming in.

Mr. MAUER: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, we'd talk more about drunk driving with two parents who've made it their job to make the roads safer. That's next.

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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. The conversation continues on TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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