Raw footage for the award-winning series The 90's. Interview with Norval Morris (1923-2004), University of Chicago law professor and advocate for criminal justice. He describes the iniquities in the American criminal justice system.
00:00Copy video clip URL The screen is initially black, and then University of Chicago law professor Norval Morris sits at his desk as the videomaker prepares him for the interview. Morris turns his phone off.
01:10Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks about the role of prisons, and Morris says “Prisons are the residual punishment for serious crimes in this country.” He defines “residual punishment” as “when we can’t think of anything else to do that is adequate, for the punishment.” One third of felony convictions go to prison.
02:15Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks about the distinction between jail and prison, and Morris explains that jail is for people who can’t be released on bail but are awaiting trial, or people who are serving short terms.
02:49Copy video clip URL Morris is asked about overcrowding in prisons, and he gives enormous figures demonstrating that our incarceration rate is several times that of all other Western countries, yet our crime rate is no higher. Our rate of incarceration is four times that of Canada and Britain. “The usual assumption is that our crime rates are similarly high, but that is not so.”
05:35Copy video clip URL Morris talks about the perception of prison as the only real punishment, and the use of prison by politicians in winning votes. “It is a situation of politics and belief.”
06:31Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks about a trend of longer sentencing, and Morris talks about the inflation of sentencing by the legislature; “there’s a very heavy pressure toward increased punitiveness.” He says that mandatory sentencing is “intellectually and morally indefensible.” But crime rate is still independent of sentencing.
07:21Copy video clip URL He talks about crime rates as affected by social pressures. “If we wanted to reduce crime rates, then we would have to work on social settings.” He says that people know where crime is, and to fix these areas, “one must work in areas of health, welfare, employment, education.”
09:49Copy video clip URL Morris is asked about alternative solutions to prison, such as intensive supervision probation, and electronic monitoring. He talks about various intermediate punishments. “The knowledge is there, we need the resources.”
11:03Copy video clip URL The interviewer wants to know what is working, and Morris cites drug treatment programs with good success rates. “The dividing line between imprisonment and other punishments should be violence or the threat of violence, or very large property depredations.”
12:03Copy video clip URL Morris is asked about making the punishment fit the crime. The interviewer makes the distinction between something like embezzlement and violent crime. He says many people in prisons haven’t committed violent crimes, they are repeated small-time property offenders.
12:54Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks about recidivism. They talk about defining prison failure. Morris says that people think that a prison has failed when there are so many in prison who are repeat offenders, since figures that say that 70 percent of people in prison have been in prison before. However, most people who are sentenced to prison once do not return.
14:48Copy video clip URL “There’s a whole host of mythological beliefs in this field that are wrong,” Morris says. One of these is that nothing works. Someone else asks if it is the prison’s obligation to rehabilitate. “I think it’s the prison’s obligation to provide opportunities for self-development, so far as it can within a prison,” which he says they are not doing with such small resources and overcrowding. He praises prison administrators, though, who he says have changed for the better though we don’t give them very much support.
16:14Copy video clip URL Morris thinks that opportunities for development are the responsibility of the legislature. Morris goes on to talk about probation forming these sort of opportunities. However, he says that probation is overcrowded even more than prison; “we have grossly inadequate resources.” He talks about the allocation of resources in the past few decades.
17:28Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks about alternatives to sentencing, and Morris advocates developing the communities, and the problems with politicians trying to get votes. He also thinks that we should be more “discriminating” in who we send to prison.
18:58Copy video clip URL The interviewer says that focusing on the prison system is avoiding other problems, and Morris agrees and says that it is a way of avoiding “the situation of an increasingly locked-in underclass.”
20:00Copy video clip URL “The problems of crime, drugs, infant mortality, bad inner city school, youth unemployment, insufficiently trained work force are all the same problem, they are not different problems, and they’re to found concentrated in the city areas.” The long term solution lies in the political field; “we must cease to create two Americas.”
21:10Copy video clip URL Morris is questioned about costs to society, and he says that we have insulated ourselves from the problems of crime, which is not “evenly spread.” “Homicide is now the leading cause of death for black males age 15-26… The victims and the criminals come from the same area. I’ve noticed that people–myself included–have a great capacity to tolerate the suffering of others.”
23:05Copy video clip URL Morris says that the basic rights of prisoners are what is contained in the Bill of Rights. “In the very high crime areas, it looks like people commit quite a few crimes before they get caught.”
24:53Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks about inefficiency, which Morris is less concerned about, and talks about some efforts in improving policing.
25:31Copy video clip URL Morris thinks there should be no difference in the way that white collar crimes are treated, and that there is a generally a difference between the treatment of white collar offenders and black prisoners. Equalizing this is difficult because of overcrowding.
27:54Copy video clip URL She asks about maximum security facilities and gangs, but Morris says maximum security is not used when it does not need to be, because they are much more expensive. He says he works for a local prison (Stateville), as a special master for the Federal District Court, as a sort of consultant to prisoners.
29:07Copy video clip URL “Prison isn’t as hidden a world as we pretend.” Morris wants to discuss the racial balance in prisons, and he says it’s seven black males to every one white male per 100,000. He says blacks that move into the middle class have the same crime rate as whites, but in the lower class it is much higher. “This is a scandal,” not of police, but to our “apartheid by motorcar.” He says that “prisons give a looking glass into society.”
32:27Copy video clip URL Morris says his passion is writing fiction, and a film is being made based on one of his stories. “People don’t find it easy to think about moral questions when they are contemporaneous.” They talk about the media a bit, and Morris is optimistic about room for more outsider media in the future.
35:21Copy video clip URL The interviewer asks about cable TV in prisons, and Morris says that it is necessary to have a large choice of programs.
36:45Copy video clip URL A shot of the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park at the end, looking north across the Midway from a building on 60th Street. We hear some chatting in the background during these shots.
37:55Copy video clip URL End of tape.