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Panel on Prison Reform Draws Boos, Hisses, Heated Debate

By Erik Beach, Contributing Writer

Former California attorney general Dan Lungren was pounded by audience hisses and two ideological opponents last night at an Institute of Politics panel on prison reform and sentencing.

Nearly 300 people crowded the ARCO Forum to hear a vehement discussion between Lungren and former Black Panther Eddie Ellis and Marc Mauer, the author of The Race to Incarcerate.

The debate included discussion of drug arrests, racial bias in the criminal justice system and mandatory minimum sentences.

Moderator Cait T. Clarke, an adjunct lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), began what she categorized as a "highly politicized and sometimes emotional" discussion by asking the panelists what they think causes crime.

Mauer responded that nearly 2 million Americans are currently imprisoned, and that 11 times as many people are imprisoned for drugs today as in 1980.

Lungren countered that the discussion should focus on the victims, rather than the perpetrators of crimes.

"The obligation of government is to protect the innocent from...the predators," Lungren said, and was immediately hissed for using this term.

During the question-and-answer period, Lungren was assailed for his use of the word "predator," which an audience member said demonizes the person instead of the crime, and has negative racial overtones.

Ellis objected to Lungren's use of the term predator in part because he believes that poverty is the root cause of many crimes. If this is the case, Ellis said, the United States should not spend the money it does on prisons.

"It seems to me that if you have $25,000, it makes more sense to send someone to Harvard than to Attica," he said.

Ellis served 25 years in Attica, the New York State prison, after being investigated by COINTELPRO, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's counterintelligence program, for his involvement in the Black Panthers. He earned his master's degree while imprisoned in Attica.

Ellis cited fear as the main reason for the skyrocketing number of prisons being built.

"America has always needed a bogeyman...and the criminal has become the bogeyman," Ellis said.

Lungren responded by saying that "punishment is the linchpin of the criminal justice system" and that victims "say punish that person."

While Lungren often appeared flustered and unable to respond to the arguments of Ellis and Mauer, he remained light-hearted about his unpopular position.

"I don't mind being in the minority here," Lungren said.

Mauer raised the issue of sentencing for drug charges, which led to just as heated a debate.

He criticized Lungren's support of federal legislation passed while Lungren was a member of Congress in the late 1980s that set mandatory minimum sentences distinguishing between powder and crack cocaine.

The bill said someone carrying 499 grams of powder serves a maximum one-year sentence, whereas a person caught with just 5 grams of crack cocaine receives a mandatory five-year sentence.

Not only is this distinction illogical, according to Mauer, but 85 percent of those convicted for possessing crack cocaine are black. He added that although whites sell and use drugs at the highest rate, blacks and Latinos make up 92 percent of drug arrests.

During the question-and-answer period, Ellis, Mauer and the crowd came down heavily upon Lungren's views, with Ellis claiming that "punishment will never be effective in the long term" and that "we are mortgaging our futures" with current prison policies.

And Mauer stressed the need for foresight and rehabilitation.

"If you just spend all your time reacting, you'll never get anywhere," he said.

Ultimately, Mauer responded to Lungren by calling for unity.

"We don't have two types of people. We're all in the same community."

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