Judge Bennett Delivers Lecture on Mass Incarceration

The Hon. Mark Bennett of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa recently was invited to the law school to discuss his latest book, A Holocaust in Slow Motion? America’s Mass Incarceration and the Role of Discretion. The title of the book was taken from a line from The House I Live in, an award-winning documentary on the never-ending War on Drugs in which Bennett appeared.

In his lecture, Bennett discussed the progression of mass incarceration in the United States since the beginning of the government’s War on Drugs. While the United States may contain only 5 percent of the world’s population, it possesses 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population. Using a series of charts, Bennett showed that in the last 40 years, the country’s prison population has seen a 500 percent increase, and a 1,950 percent increase in the populations of federal prisons due solely to drug-based offenses. 

Of the multitude of inmates currently imprisoned, barely more than 10 percent are high-risk or violent, with almost 50 percent considered low to minimum risk. He also pointed out that African Americans are imprisoned at more than seven to nine times the rate of Caucasians, while those of Hispanic origin are imprisoned at three times the rate.

As a judge assigned to sentence many drug-related cases, Bennett talked about how hard he has fought to see an equal and fair distribution of justice. It has been a task that up until recently had been made more difficult by a series of mandatory regulations requiring judges to apply specific minimum prison sentences to drug-based crimes. Set in place during the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, the minimum mandatory sentences have seen a small, but steady increase.

This has resulted in longer jail sentences for relatively minor drug-based offenses. Often the people sentenced were only charged with possession and rarely with distribution. This had led to greater population density within prisons without really solving the source of the problem, he stressed.

It wasn’t until the case of the United States v. Booker that the guidelines were made non-mandatory and judges were finally given more discretion in their cases. Bennett believes that the Booker case along with new proposed amendments to the federal guidelines, will give more people a greater chance at a fair hearing.

Bennett was originally appointed a United States District Court judge in the Northern District of Iowa in 1994. In 2000, he became chief judge and served in this capacity for seven years.

Bennett’s lecture was organized by the American Constitution Society (ACS), a student group with a focus on connecting the legal community through a progressive vision of the Constitution and laws, and cosponsored by the Criminal Law Society and the law school's Diversity Week. Other events that took place during Diversity Week included the Midwest LGBT/OUTLaw Conference; "Continuing Dr. King's Legacy: America's Supper at Lunchtime," with Karen Aroesty from the Anti-Defamation League; "Religion and the Law," with panelists, Father Gary Braun, Professor John Inazu, and Associate Dean Rebecca Brown of Career Services; and "Gender and the Law: The Role of Women in Leadership," presented by Professor Hillary Sale.

Brent Mueller, Spring 2014