Professor Chris Surprenant on America’s Mass Incarceration Problem

The Liberating Power of Higher Education

How did America get to the point where 2.3 million people are incarcerated and several million more are on parole or probation?

When University of New Orleans professor Chris Surprenant spoke at the Institute for Humane Studies about mass incarceration, he pulled up statistics on the local Arlington, Virginia jail.

University of New Orleans professor, Chris Surprenant

“You’ve got 344 people incarcerated,” Dr. Surprenant said. “43% of these folks have not been convicted of anything.”

Dr. Surprenant is the co-author (with Jason Brennan of Georgetown University) of Injustice for All, a new book that looks at mass incarceration and the perverse financial incentives of the criminal justice system. To make a point about unnecessary incarceration, Dr. Surprenant pulled up a list of Arlington inmates who could be bailed for $1,000.

“That there are any people who can get out if they can only put up that, if they only need to put up a thousand bucks, is a problem,” Dr. Surprenant said, “because these are people who probably don’t present any danger to the community. If you can get out for a thousand dollars, it means we don’t mind having you out in the community.”

If you were in jail for six, or four, whatever it is, do the math, for 14 days, you probably lose your job . . . you know, 30 days, you’re going to start missing payments on your house. You probably lose your kids . . . You’ve got, like, 15* or so people whose lives are probably being ruined right now because they can’t come up with $1,000. For me, that’s a problem. It’s an issue of justice.

– Dr. Chris Surprenant. *Referring to the total amount of people incarcerated in Arlington County at the $1000 bail level on the date of this lecture: November 21, 2019.
Mass Incarceration Problem

And yet, because they can’t put $1,000 together for bail, these people sit in jail for days or weeks.

“If you were in jail for six, or four, whatever it is, do the math, for 14 days, you probably lose your job . . . you know, 30 days, you’re going to start missing payments on your house. You probably lose your kids . . . You’ve got, like, 15 or so people whose lives are probably being ruined right now because they can’t come up with $1,000. For me, that’s a problem. It’s an issue of justice.”

How did America get to the point where 2.3 million people are incarcerated and several million more are on parole or probation? Discussing his book Injustice for All, Dr. Surprenant explained that while systemic racism is a problem, it’s not the primary driver behind our mass incarceration problem.

It’s a massive business. What you’re looking at is, you’re looking at people needing to operate against their own personal financial incentives and act in the best interests of people in our community who have no political capital and who can’t come up with a thousand dollars to get themselves out.

– Dr. Chris Surprenant

“One of the claims we make early on is that because of the way the financial incentives are structured, if everyone was in the same shade of tan, you’d see similar numbers because of how many people are profiting off of our current system right now,” Dr. Surprenant said.

“It’s a massive business. What you’re looking at is, you’re looking at people needing to operate against their own personal financial incentives and act in the best interests of people in our community who have no political capital and who can’t come up with a thousand dollars to get themselves out.”

Watch Dr. Chris Surprenant’s full lecture, Criminal Justice Reform and Revitalizing At-Risk Communities. For a previous conversation between CEO Emily Chamlee-Wright and Dr. Chris Surprenant, read this article on the liberating power of higher education.

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