On the one hand, the United States of America is known as a beacon of liberty, said Ezekiel Edwards.

On the other hand, he said, this country is "the world's leading jailer."

"We put more people in prison than any country on Earth, and we spend a lot of money doing that," said Edwards, director of the Criminal Law Reform Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

This week, Edwards plans to give a lecture at the University of Montana School of Law called "America's Addiction to Mass Incarceration." The event is scheduled to take place at 7 p.m. Thursday in Room 201 of the Law School building.

The ACLU of Montana is bringing Edwards to town as a keynote speaker because criminal justice reform is the focus of its annual meeting.

According to his bio, Edwards has sought to advance reform in a variety of ways, including litigation, advocacy and "challenging law enforcement abuses of power."

"The goal of the Criminal Law Reform Project (a division of the national ACLU) is to put an end to excessively harsh crime policies that result in mass incarceration and stand in the way of a just and equal society," the bio said.

In a telephone interview, Edwards said he plans to discuss the reason the U.S. criminal justice system has grown to be the largest in the world. He also will address how communities can start "investing in smarter ... practices and policies."

He also will touch on the growing bipartisan support for reform, and some of the unlikely alliances that are developing to push through change. Now, he said, it's not just the ACLU and the NAACP advocating new policies, but the conservative Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute.

"I want to talk about that phenomenon, both I think in terms of the opportunities that it presents and maybe some of the challenges," Edwards said.

Some people are offended at the number of nonviolent people and drug users who are incarcerated, he said. Some "unlikely allies" also are wary of big government, and they see the enormity of the federal criminal justice system as a problem.

"I think the number of regulations and laws and ways in which we can be criminalized offends some people's sense of small government," he said.

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Incarceration rates in every state have gone up significantly since the 1970s, Edwards said. He described the trend as an "American phenomenon."

Here, the Missoula County Sheriff's Office has said it does not have the resources to deal with all the people sentenced to jail who have mental health issues, and Edwards said Missoula is not an anomaly.

"Increasingly, we have decided the short-term way to deal with mental illness is to jail people," Edwards said.

Far too many people who are locked up just need treatment, though, he said. He pointed to the Memphis Police Department as having a model "diversion" program in place that involves mental health agencies and families in addition to law enforcement.

"(The programs) require a commitment, and sometimes money, but when you look at the money we spend putting people in jail, we could be reinvesting some of that into public health approaches," Edwards said.

According to his bio, Edwards has written briefs in the United States Supreme Court in cases covering Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment issues. He blogs at aclu.org/blog/author/ezekiel-edwards.

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Higher Education Reporter

Reporter for the Missoulian