Karol Mason, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, talks with The Post’s Jonathan Capehart on the “Cape Up” podcast at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colo., on June 29. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

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“The problem we have now is we think prison is the only way to hold people accountable when they break the law.”

When Karol Mason was assistant attorney general under then-President Barack Obama, she ran the Office of Justice Program that worked with state and local law enforcement agencies as well as crime victims. Also under her purview was the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which does statistical work and research work for the Justice Department. Today, Mason is the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

“When you talk about people that are in our prisons and jails, it’s about 2.2 million people and of that, 90 percent are in our state and local prisons and jails,” Mason told me during the latest episode of “Cape Up” recorded at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 29 in Aspen, Colo. “There are about 200,000 people in our Bureau of Prisons system and … all of them are convicted of federal crimes.” If you add the number of people who are on probation or on parole, Mason said, there are “about 7 million people in our country who are caught up in our criminal-justice system.”

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I needed these basic numbers to get a handle on the size of the jail-prison population before diving into the nitty gritty of criminal-justice reform. Specifically, I wanted to know about the move started under Obama (and ended by Attorney General Jeff Sessions) to reduce minimum sentencing for low-level drug offences. “Because of the Crime Act in the 1990s, we got these really harsh penalties and we’ve got people sitting in jail who are really drug addicts,” Mason said. “The opioid epidemic has opened up an opportunity for us to think about drug addiction differently, and see it as a health issue and not a crime issue.” And this led to a larger discussion about the best ways to contend with crime and safety.

[T]he challenge for me is getting people to think of our criminal justice system in that right framework of what’s gonna create safer communities. And we know from research that locking people up for long sentences, arresting people and putting them in jail for drug crimes are not what produce safer communities. What produces safer communities is looking at what are the causal factors putting people into our criminal-justice system: Lack of opportunity, lack of jobs, health care, education, poverty. We’ve got so many people in our criminal-justice system simply because they’re poor, and what we ought to be doing is investing upstream in keeping people out of the system and providing them opportunities.


Kenneth Davis, left, and Mickey Edwards, right, listen as Karol Mason, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, speaks on a panel on gun violence at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colo., on June 27. (Riccardo Savi/The Aspen Institute)

Listen to the podcast to hear the rest of this conversation with Mason on criminal-justice reform. She talks more about how education, jobs and connection to family “are the three key factors that will prevent people from coming back into our criminal-justice system.” She gets into how Southern states such as Texas (Texas?!) are “being progressive on criminal-justice issues.” And she lauds the broad support for criminal-justice reform.

“This whole movement about rethinking about what we do with our criminal-justice system is nonpartisan,” Mason told me. “It’s not a conservative issue. It’s not a liberal issue. People realize it’s a people issue.”

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