Calling the United States the "incarceration capital of the globe," U.S. Sen. Cory A. Booker (D., N.J.) recounted his visit to a federal prison Thursday, telling a Camden audience about an inmate who told him of being locked up for decades for a drug crime.
"Who do we incarcerate?" Booker asked the gathering of more than 275 people at Kaighns Avenue Baptist Church, and answered himself: the poor, the mentally ill, minorities, and drug offenders.
Booker raised those concerns as he joined U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman and Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson to discuss criminal justice reform.
The event was part of a one-week "road trip," as Booker's staff called it, in which the senator is visiting New Jersey's 21 counties to talk about criminal justice issues and the people who are placed behind bars.
Booker, who reportedly made Hillary Clinton's short list for running mate, has denied interest in running for governor next year.
In federal prisons, the number of inmates is nearly eight times what it was in 1980, according to a report from the Bureau of Federal Prisons. The inmate population was about 25,000 then. It is now nearly 194,000.
In New Jersey, the number of inmates in state facilities has dropped in recent years, from around 25,000 in 2011 to slightly more than 20,000 this year, according to the Department of Corrections' most recent report, issued in January. The department says 60 percent of the inmates are black and 36 percent are 30 or younger.
Booker spoke to the Inquirer shortly after he visited the Federal Correctional Institution in Fairton, Cumberland County. He said his conversations with inmates and corrections officers there had sparked greater urgency in him to push for expanded programs of higher education and job training for inmates.
He said such programs make it less likely that former inmates will return to prison, and save taxpayers money in the long run.
"You get a major return on that investment," Booker said.
The federal prison he visited is a medium-security facility with nearly 1,250 inmates, in for crimes such as drug use and theft.
At the Camden event, Fishman, too, said that without educational programs, inmates are left with nothing when their sentences end. That leaves them vulnerable to getting involved in the same crimes that brought them to prison in the first place, he said.
Thomson talked about disparities in jail time between petty offenders and serious criminals. As the criminal justice system exists, he said, someone with a parking violation could sit behind bars longer than a dangerous individual carrying a gun.
"The system as a whole is fractured," he said.
Thursday's event came amid heightened tensions between police departments and communities across the nation.
The fatal police shootings last month of Philando Castile, a passenger in a vehicle stopped in Falcon Heights, Minn., and Alton Sterling, a street vendor, in Baton Rouge, La., led to protests in many major cities and raised concerns about use of force and racial profiling by police.
At the same time, states including New Jersey and Pennsylvania have proposed extending hate-crime protections to police officers, since an apparently racially motivated former soldier fatally shot five officers in Dallas on July 7, and a gunman in Baton Rouge ambushed and killed three officers July 17.
Carl Boyd, 40, who attended the event and works at the nonprofit Center for Family Services, where he tries to bring fathers closer to their children, said he wants to see better relationships between police and communities across the U.S.
"Nationwide, it's definitely fractured," he said. In Camden, he said, he has had good conversations with some officers, and wants more dialogue between police and residents.