The Hon. Patti B. Saris Will Speak on Mass Incarceration, Criminal Justice Reform

Growing up in Roxbury, Mass., Patti Saris never dreamed of going to law school, much less becoming one of the nation’s leading judges.

But when she enrolled at Radcliffe and began covering the women’s movement for the Harvard Crimson, she discovered an interest in human rights and social justice.

“I was very much a local kid,” she told The Federal Lawyer in 2013. “I went off to Harvard, and even though it’s just a few miles away [from where I grew up], it was a whole different world, and I was opened up to some of the major battles of society.”

Saris arrived at Radcliffe in 1969, when debates over women’s rights and civil rights were transforming the culture. She originally planned to cover those battles as a reporter—but after graduating from Radcliffe and scoring well on the LSAT, she applied to and was accepted at Harvard Law School.

Forty years later, Saris is one of the nation’s leading federal judges—an occupation in which women are rare. A U.S. District Judge for the District of Massachusetts since 1994 and Chief Judge since 2013, she has been a member and chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission since 2010.

In a September 15 Presidential Colloquium at Smith, Saris will discuss the problem of mass incarceration in the United States as it ties into her work both as a sitting judge and as chair of the Sentencing Commission. The event, which is Smith’s Constitution Day lecture, takes place at 4:30 p.m. in Neilson Browsing Room and is open to the public at no charge.

Alice Hearst, professor of government, says, “This talk offers a rare opportunity for Smith students to learn about the basic causes of mass incarceration and to place that problem in context. 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.”

The U.S. Sentencing Commission is a bipartisan, independent agency created by Congress in 1984 to reduce sentencing disparities and promote transparency and proportionality in sentencing. Its work has been increasingly important in the wake of increased mandatory sentencing required by federal law over the last three decades.  Across the nation, federal judges have become increasingly concerned with what New York Federal District Court Judge Raymond Dearie has called “the madness of mass incarceration.”

As chair of the commission, Saris oversees the group’s important work. She speaks frequently on topics related to law and criminal sentencing.

Saris earned her B.A. degree, magna cum laude, in 1973 from Radcliffe College and earned her J.D. degree, cum laude, from Harvard Law School in 1976. She has received a number of honors and awards, including the Harvard University Medal of Honor (2009), a Judicial Conference of the United States Resolution of Appreciation (2005) and the Boston Bar Association’s Citation of Judicial Excellence (2003).

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