In the area of criminal justice, this was quite a week for President Obama.
Articulating a vision for reform of the prisons and an end to mass incarceration, commuting the sentences of 46 federal inmates convicted on nonviolent drug offenses, and becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit a correctional institution, Obama is showing leadership on a cutting-edge issue facing the nation, and one that hits black people hardest.
On Thursday, the president visited El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma, his motorcade in Oklahoma City greeted with a crowd of Confederate flag wavers—underscoring the unaddressed racial problems facing the country. As for his visit to the prison, President Obama was able to put a human face on the issue of incarceration. Too often, the incarcerated are viewed as throwaway people, the personification of our problems that we lock up and forget. But these are human beings. They are family and friends, many of whom don’t belong there in the first place. And lives are destroyed, communities decimated and families broken up in the process.
“There but for the grace of God,” Obama reflected soberly, suggesting that circumstances could have been different for himself and others, given the mistakes that many young people make, should they lack the support structures, second chances or resources to withstand those mistakes. “And that, I think, is something we all have to think about.”
“We have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to both control crime and rehabilitate individuals,” the president said during his visit. “We have to reconsider whether 20 year, 30 year, life sentences for nonviolent crimes is the best way for us to solve these problems.”
President Obama met with six prisoners at El Reno, and their discussion will be featured in a VICEdocumentary-type special to air on HBO in the fall.
“Every single one of them emphasized the fact that they had done something wrong, they are prepared to take responsibility for it, but they also urged us to think about how society could’ve reached them earlier on in life to keep them out of trouble,” the president noted of the inmates he met.
“I think we have a tendency sometimes to almost take for granted or think it’s normal that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system. It’s not normal. It’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things,” Obama said after visiting the facility and speaking with the inmates.
Mass incarceration is an American curse, created through a bipartisan effort to get “tough on crime,” lock people up and throw away the key. And although this is a uniquely American crisis, the war on drugs that produced the world’s largest prison population — 2.2 million, including 1.5 million in federal and state facilities and another 700,000 in local jails — has been a war on people of color.
These days, the U.S. prison problem is often compared to Jim Crow, in which the court system targeted black men and funneled them into the convict labor system, continuing the economic exploitation of slavery. According to the Sentencing Project, people of color are 67 percent of the nation’s prisoners, a consequence of measures such as the 1994 Omnibus Crime Act, which Bill Clinton signed into law. This week at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia, as President Obama addressed an audience about reforming a system “skewed by race and wealth,” Clinton apologized for his role in mass incarceration.
Now, black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, and Latino men are 2.4 times more likely. Further, 1 in 10 black men in their thirties are in prison or jail.
Prisons are big business, and they are draining the resources of states and eating away funds for education, infrastructure and programs of social uplift.
The significance of the president’s moves this week extends far beyond the prison walls of El Reno and reflects an understanding of the need for comprehensive policy reform.
“The president has taken steps with Attorney General Eric Holder and his successor [Loretta Lynch] to address a number of issues concerning overincarceration, and it has been a process for this executive in addressing what we do when we get out of prison,” said Todd A. Cox, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, in an interview with theGrio. “So I think for this president, it has been a process over the years as prosecutors and leaders of the government in general to make sure they are addressing the issue.”
“I think beyond going to a prison, there needs to be something comprehensive done,” added Cox, who also served as director of the Office of Communications and Legislative Affairs at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Obama.
Cox — who thinks the government can serve as more of a model employer for people who have served time—believes that prison should be used in a balanced, limited and proportional manner. Further, he argues, much more should be done to keep communities safe and end mass incarceration and overcriminalization — in a nation where 70 to 100 million people have a criminal record.
“Today, even a minor criminal record serves as both a direct cause and consequence of poverty, presenting obstacles to employment, housing, public assistance, education, family reunification, and more. The impact of mass incarceration on communities of color is particularly staggering and is a significant driver of racial inequality in the United States,” he added.
The “tough on crime” approach is a miserable failure, and true reform of the criminal justice system will take a bipartisan effort in which we are smarter about sentencing, reduce barriers for the formerly incarcerated, and increase their job opportunities. This week, the president took the first steps towards this, which is why his prison visit was important.