In words and in deeds, Barack Obama is ramping up his crusade for criminal justice reform, a worthy undertaking for the final two years of his presidency.
In a rousing speech to the NAACP on Tuesday and in more measured tones at the White House on Wednesday, Obama made the case that we need a more just criminal justice system as an issue of civil rights and racial equality.
Thursday, he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison – a penitentiary in Oklahoma – to spotlight the subject. Earlier this week, he commuted the sentences of 46 federal drug offenders, doubling the number during his presidency and surpassing the total of his four predecessors combined.
With about 4 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has more than 20 percent of its prisoners. The population in federal and state prisons and local jails has exploded from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million. And that spike has largely been driven by nonviolent drug offenders.
The president is clear that violent criminals and drug kingpins need to be in prison. But far too many Americans have been locked up for too long for minor drug offenses. That wastes money that should go to solving violent crimes, putting more police in high-crime cities and investing in drug treatment, job training and mental health care programs that will help reduce crime and make us safer.
The skewing of the justice system ripples throughout our society, especially in minority communities burdened with poverty, unemployment and failing schools. The racial disparities in police stops and sentencing are well documented.
“We can’t close our eyes any more,” Obama told the NAACP.
As our first black president, Obama has a special authority on this subject. He says that he could have been one of those men on street corners with little hope and no margin of error to avoid prison, except that people in his life pulled him out of his youthful drug use.
“There but for the grace of God,” Obama said after touring the El Reno federal prison. “And that is something we all have to think about.”
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling forced California to confront prison overcrowding. Now, the state is at the forefront of this change. Gov. Jerry Brown’s public safety realignment of 2011 keeps lower level offenders out of prison, and forces counties to handle them. Last November, voters approved Proposition 47 to turn drug possession and other nonviolent offenses from felonies or “wobblers” to misdemeanors.
As the president correctly noted, this opportunity for real reform will last only as long as crime rates – at historic lows – stay under control
Obama said he’s “modestly optimistic” that there’s enough bipartisan support in Congress for change, starting with reducing mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. Criminal justice reform is a mammoth undertaking. Bringing more fairness to sentencing low-level drug offenders would be a good start.