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Talk by Brad Brockmann, '83 

"The Vortex" Where Criminal Justice and Public Health Meet

By John Masson
Sept. 17, 2012

The deplorable condition of the criminal justice and public health systems was the subject of a recent lunchtime talk by 1983 Michigan Law grad Brad Brockmann.

Brockmann, executive director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights in Providence, Rhode Island, spoke at a program organized by the Frank Murphy Society and the Prisoners' Rights Organization of Students.

The former Wall Street lawyer—who decided to throw over corporate law, moved to Mexico to do human-rights work, and ended up in divinity school in hopes of becoming a social justice activist—told students that the failings of the two systems on their own are compounded where the two systems overlap.

Brockmann drew attention to "the intersection of two huge, seriously deficient national systems—criminal justice and public health—and how the vulnerable, low-income populations caught at their vortex have been so deeply and so negatively affected," as he put it.

The numbers are startling. In the 1970s, incarceration rates in the United States ran roughly parallel with those in Canada, Europe, and the rest of the developed world. But the war on drugs drove those numbers skyward, and now the United States imprisons people at a higher rate than even some of the most repressive governments on the planet—places like Russia and Rwanda. With less than five percent of the world's population, the U.S. incarcerates 25 percent of the world's prisoners.

Compounding the problem, Brockmann said, is the disproportionate impact of incarceration on people of color and low-income individuals, many of whom have untreated mental illness or substance abuse problems precisely because the public health system fails to provide health-care coverage for millions of the poor.

"The effective criminalization of mental illness is illustrated by the fact that the country's largest psychiatric facilities … are now the New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago jails," Brockmann said. "Over 60 percent of the people in more than 3,000 local jails are mentally ill."

Mandatory sentencing law, three strikes laws, and efforts to limit judicial discretion all contribute to the problem, Brockmann said.

"We have become an extraordinarily punitive society that is focused on revenge and a quest for blood that is now reflected in our laws," Brockmann said.

But the outlook isn't completely bleak, Brockmann said. Just last year former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich—not generally known as someone who is soft on crime—coauthored an op-ed in The Washington Post on the success Texas has had enhancing proven concepts of community corrections as opposed to building new prisons. Forecast savings from the move was as much as $2 billion—much of which is being redirected toward community treatment for mentally ill people and people with low-level drug addiction.

"We actually do have some hope here, if we can reach across various political spectrums and come to some sense of reasonableness," Brockmann concluded. "We have some hope."

Watch a video of the complete talk.

More information is available at The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights.

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