Hon. Patti B. Saris Speaks at Smith on Mass Incarceration

Photo by Jen Zhu ’18| The Hon. Patti B Saris spoke recently at Smith about mass incarcertation in the U.S.

Photo by Jen Zhu ’18| The Hon. Patti B Saris spoke recently at Smith about mass incarcertation in the U.S.

Molly McGuire ’18
News Editor

On Sept. 15, students filled Neilson Browsing Room in order to attend the Presidential Colloquium featuring the Hon. Patti B. Saris. This event was so popular it was standing room only, with students and community members filling every available space during the lecture, which discussed mass incarceration and criminal justice reform.

Saris, a graduate of Harvard Law School, became a U.S. District Judge for the District of Massachusetts in 1994. She then moved on to become a Chief Justice in 2013 and was also appointed to be a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2010, serving as a chair of the commission.

Prior to the event, Alice Hearst, a professor of Government at Smith was quoted in the Grecourt Gate as saying, “Judge Saris is a distinguished jurist who has deep knowledge of the system and is committed to bringing problems into the open so that the American people have a better sense of options to resolve the issues of structural injustice.” Hearst organized Saris’s visit in honor of Constitution Day, which was on Sept. 16.

President Kathleen McCartney introduced Judge Saris before she gave her lecture. “I came to appreciate Judge Saris’s sharp mind and sound judgment when I was serving as Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. At the time, Judge Saris was President of the Board of Overseers at Harvard, but also, she served on the school’s Visiting Committee, which functions a little bit like a Board of Trustees. I valued her wise counsel, as well as her advocacy on behalf of the school,” said President McCartney.

During the lecture, Saris discussed at length the harmful effects of mandatory minimums used for non-violent drug offenses. She explained how the U.S. Sentencing Commission released a report in 2011, where they concluded that “there are too many federal mandatory minimum penalties, and that many of them, particularly for drug offenses, are too severe and applied too broadly.”

She explained how these harsh policies have hurt some of the more vulnerable groups in the country. “Inner-city communities and racial and ethnic minorities have suffered from our emphasis on harsh drug penalties,” she said.

However, much of Saris’s talk had a more hopeful tone. She described the several bipartisan efforts to create meaningful reform. “A wide range of unlikely allies are working to achieve transformative change in the criminal justice system,” she said.

“There’s so much you can do to make our criminal justice system fair,” she said. As an example, Saris said, “you can help organizations which assist prisoners to reenter the community so that they can succeed and not recidivate.”

“Constitution Day is a day to reflect on where America stands in its path for a more perfect union. Much progress has been made since those 39 founders assembled in Philadelphia to sign our organizing charter. Our work as a nation is not complete. The task for all of you is to identify the tests that remain and to ask yourself how you intend to close the gap between the principles of the Constitution and the realities of our society,” she said.

Saris ended the speech by speaking directly to the Smith student body: “Keep in mind as you become young women in our society, whether you’re doctors or lawyers or engineers [ … ] Please always be active about thinking about our criminal justice system and the meaning of that for our enduring republic.”

After the lecture, Saris took the time to answer questions from the audience. One student asked, “Since your term is closing, what are your plans?” Saris laughed, and explained that she will continue her work as a trial judge and Chief Judge in the District of Massachusetts, but that she will also spend time with her grandchild.

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