The FemDems and JustDems, two issue committees of the University of Michigan’s chapter of the College Democrats, hosted a panel titled “Rethinking Public Policy in an Age of Mass Incarceration” Tuesday night. 

The panel consisted of Francine Banner, associate professor of Sociology at U-M Dearborn, and Mark Fancher, a staff attorney for the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Michigan. They discussed the issue of mass incarceration and the policies and factors that contribute to it, specifically those that harm women and the Black community. The panel was attended by a group of about 50 students and community members at the Ford School of Public Policy.

LSA senior Emma Rooney, the co-chair of JustDems, told The Michigan Daily they invited Banner and Fancher due to their previous experience with the criminal justice system.

“Banner taught in prison systems, and Mark Fancher has experience with the ACLU and doing direct court cases, and we wanted to focus on policies,” Rooney said. “So, for the ACLU, them dealing with the courts was particular to that, and then we wanted to talk about the experience of women too, and Banner teaches at a women’s prison.”

Fancher began the panel by outlining the history of mass incarceration in the United States and noting points in recent American history in which Black Americans have been wrongly incarcerated.

“During the Civil Rights era, people were arrested for simply exercising their First Amendment rights. … During the Black Power movement, you’d find people who were framed… some of these people imprisoned in the 1960s are still in prison today,” Fancher said. “During the war on drugs… the number of people who went to prison skyrocketed because of policies that demonized people… and (law enforcement) swept through Black communities.”

Before continuing, both Banner and Fancher stressed to the audience that the issue of mass incarceration is not simply a point of partisan disagreement.

“The issue is not one between Democrats and Republicans, but it is between those in power and those who are oppressed,” Fancher said.

“Sentencing guidelines (for the War on Drugs) were voted on by both Democrats and Republicans,” Banner said.

Both Banner and Fancher offered up potential changes in policy and general approaches to the problems surrounding mass incarceration. 

Fancher focused on the issue of policing and the disproportionate impact felt in communities of color, especially Black Americans. One possible solution to this, Fancher said, is to incentivize police officers by tying promotion and job progression to policing in a manner that is as unbiased and as fair as possible.

“The one thing that I am convinced of after talking to, at this point, hundreds of police officers, is that if they’re not concerned about anything else, they’re concerned about their careers and their career advancement,” Fancher said. “If the message somehow gets through to them that the way to advance is to act as progressive as possible… I think that they would do it.”

Banner briefly spoke about the issues women face in the criminal justice system, and the rising number of incarcerated women.

“From the 1970s to 2000, the number of women incarcerated grew by 823 percent … and women’s incarceration numbers seem to be growing. … So, we need to realize that policies are not equal in their impact (to men and women),” Banner said.

When asked how University students interested in helping to reduce mass incarceration might do so, Fancher offered a rather simple solution.

“The reality is, anything I do, you can do right now. It just becomes a question of whether your way of thinking is one that just drives you to get up and do it,” Fancher said. “You’ve got more power, you’ve got more influence than you think.


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