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Harry's Law's Primetime Shout-Out for Criminal Law Reform

Inimai Chettiar,
Brennan Center's Justice Program
Rebecca McCray,
Managing Editor,
American Civil Liberties Union
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January 21, 2011

While flipping channels on Monday night, we were pleased to stumble across NBC’s new show, Harry’s Law. The pilot episode features a bored Harriet “Harry” Korn (played by Kathy Bates), who opens her own criminal defense firm after she’s fired from her mind-numbing job in patent law. While the opening few minutes are a bit absurd (Harry’s first client is a third-time drug offender who literally lands on her after jumping off a building), the show’s pilot brings to light the serious problem of overincarceration in our country.

In her closing argument to a jury in defense of a young man charged with cocaine possession (minutes 27-31 of the episode), Harry delivers a touching and evidence-based appeal to the jury and argues that incarceration is not the appropriate way to deal with drug offenders. She points out:

“[S]tudy after study after study has shown that when you take kids like Malcolm [her young black client] and you stick them in jail, you increase the likelihood that they’ll remain addicts, or wind up homeless, or worst of all become more hardened and career criminals. When it comes to drug abuse, treatment is seven times more cost effective than incarceration. Seven times. It’s an indisputable fact.”

Since television statistics can often be far from the truth, we did a little research. It seems the show’s “seven times” statistic may be based on a 1994 report commissioned by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. Several recent studies also show that treatment is far more cost effective than incarceration for drug offenses. Drug offenses, especially possession, are often indicative of addiction. And addiction, more than being a criminal offense, is something that can be treated. Treatment rehabilitates drug offenders at a lower cost, allowing them to become productive members of society. Incarcerating someone is expensive. And as Harry so effectively points out, prison “neither treats nor trains nor rehabilitates” — it merely risks making someone more dangerous and likely to commit crimes in the future. Harry is right: these are the facts.

In one of the more poignant moments in her speech, Harry argues that “intrinsic to justice is humanity. Humanity couldn’t call for this young man to be locked up — it simply couldn’t.” It’s true. Not only is it inhumane to lock up people who are addicted to drugs, it’s unreasonable and fiscally irresponsible.

Taxpayers spend almost $70 billion a year on corrections and incarceration. There are 1.6 million Americans in prison — that is triple the amount of prisoners we had in 1987 — and 25 percent of those incarcerated are locked up for drug offenses. When those who are incarcerated are released, they earn approximately 40 percent less than they did before entering prison — that means their economic mobility is almost half of what it was before incarceration. In times of a global economic crisis, do we really want to spend this much money locking up small time offenders? And do we really want to lock up such a large chunk of our labor force and decrease their future earning potential when it could serve as a drag on our future economic recovery? And on top of all this, it’s proven ineffective to imprison people for drug offenses — incarceration doesn’t fix the problem of drug addiction.

It’s even more ineffective (and inhumane) to lock up our kids who are addicted to drugs — as Harry points out, doing so is akin to throwing them away — thereby increasing the likelihood they will have lives filled with inhumane prison conditions, mental health problems, lack of economic opportunity, and continued addiction. And by imprisoning our children for drug offenses, we risk creating a cycle that may prevent their kids from having brighter futures. One in every 28 children in this country has a parent behind bars, up from one in 125 just 25 years ago. We are sacrificing these children’s lives as well. Just as we increasingly can’t afford the cost of incarceration, we can’t afford to lose our kids and our country to the cycle of incarceration and poverty.

The show’s perspective isn’t necessarily profound, but it is pleasant to hear Harry’s words cut through the din of fear-driven plotlines that have for so long been a staple in popular television crime dramas. Seeing these types of arguments (and facts) go mainstream is promising, and suggests that conversations like this might occur more broadly than we realized. Pop culture, and particularly primetime television, has the power to shape our society, culture and our views, and spark favorable, impassioned dinner table conversations about critical civil liberties issues.

Hopefully, that is just what the pilot of Harry’s Law will do.