Judge Says Mass Incarceration is “Failed Experiment”

United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York Judge Edgardo Ramos said that mandatory sentencing on the 1980’s and 1990’s has led to “mass incarceration and a justice gap,” in our society.

Speaking to 150 attorneys, judges, and legal professionals at the 2016 Red Mass held this morning at Fairfield University, Judge Ramos said that the United States has five percent of the world’s population but accounts for 25 percent of “the world’s prisoners.”

Judge Ramos called on attorneys in private practice to consider taking on more “pro bono cases” for the poor, and said the government will need to find new remedies for dealing with non-violent offenders. The morning began with Mass in the Egan Chapel con-celebrated by Bishop Frank Caggiano, Fairfield University President Jeffrey von Arx, and members of the Jesuit community. The bishop thanked the attorneys for their faithful witness in society and told them he prayed for them often throughout the year.

He said that in a society that often believes that religious liberty “should be confined within the four walls of a Church,” many who practice law may feel “a struggle to be men and women of faith and to do what the law asks you to do and administer justice as required.” Describing mandatory minimum sentencing as a “failed social experiment,” Judge Ramos said it has led to “mass incarceration of an entire generation of young men of color,” including many who were non-violent offenders and could have been treated more effectively in other settings.

He said his own thinking on dealing with youthful offenders as a judge has changed to believe that in addition to demanding personal responsibility, the courts need new approaches that can help divert young men from the lure of gangs and the street.

The United States now has 2.3 million behind bars with African Americans and Latinos accounting for 60% of the inmates at a total cost of more than $260 billion a year. Judge Ramos said the murder rate in New York plummeted from 2,700 in 1990 to 328 in 2014, but mass incarceration as had “immense social consequences.” The Judge said studies show no relationship “between incarceration and crime rates,” and he discussed alternatives and “diversion programs” that have shown some success in working with non-violent offenders in New York.

Judge said many people of color and the poor often suffer serious consequences in their own lives because they cannot afford an attorney for civil cases in matters such as immigration, eviction, discrimination and child support. “Four fifths of low income people have no access to lawyers when they need one on matters that are complex, important and consequential in their lives,” he said.

Likewise, those have been released from prison find “impediments to employment” are ineligible for safety net programs and are disqualified from Pell Grants that would help them continue their education.

Judge Ramos told the gathering that he is one of eight children raised by a single mother in Newark, New Jersey. Five of his brothers were arrested over the years and his sister’s ex-husband is in prison. Based on his own family experience, Judge Ramos said he always felt he understood the hardships faces by young people. However, he said at some point after working as a judge he began to feel “that my own experiences was no longer so similar” to the youth who stood before him for sentencing.

Citing the book, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, the story of a brilliant Newark student who went on to Yale and was killed in a drug trade, Judge Ramos said he realized how difficult it is for young people in poverty “to make the right decision and resist the pull of the street.”

During the breakfast, Bishop Caggiano presented the St. Thomas More Award to outgoing Fairfield University President Jeffrey von Arx for this commitment to the breakfast and his support for the Diocese in a wide range of programs and joint efforts. “Your door was always open and your departure is a great loss for the Diocese,” the Bishop said to Fr von Arx as he presented him the award.

Anne O. McCrory, Chief Lefal and Real Estate Officer of the Diocese of Bridgeport, offered a welcome to the attorneys. Msgr. Dariusz Zielonka, Judicial Vicar of the Diocese and Pastor of St. Judge Parish in Monroe, delivered the invocation.

Edgardo Ramos was appointed United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York on September 15, 2011, after being nominated by President Barack Obama. He began his term as a judge on December 15, 2011. He earned a B.A. in 1982 from Yale University and a J.D. in 1987 from Harvard Law School.

Photos from the Mass: