A Long-Awaited Promise: Obama Gets Real About Criminal Justice Reform

Washington, DC—(ENEWSPF)—July 15, 2015

By: Sharda Sekaran

“Mass incarceration makes our entire country worse off, and we need to do something about it.” – President Obama in his July 14, 2015 speech to the NAACP annual conference

Fifteen years ago, when I first started working on drug policy and criminal justice reform issues, I never would have imagined these words coming out of the mouth of a sitting U.S. president. But then again, I would never have imagined Barack Obama.

Actually, I might have met Obama by then. I remember shaking his hand after a person told me he was “someone to watch” at a gathering of black state legislators around that time. He was still an Illinois state senator.

But there’s no way I would have believed anyone telling me that he would go on to become president. And if you told me that, as president, he would give the speech he did today at the 106th annual conference of the NAACP, I would have found such optimism delusional but endearing.

“For non-violent drug crimes, we need to lower long mandatory minimum sentences — or get rid of them entirely.” – President Obama

Fifteen years ago, we were still advocating to get influential civil and human rights organizations to recognize U.S. mass incarceration as a crisis. We were the underdogs promoting awareness around the fact that appallingly high numbers of incarcerated people are more likely to be poor, black, brown, marginalized and ensnared in a broken system than they were a threat to public safety.

We were still sounding the alarm that the drug war had failed, mandatory minimum sentences were unjust and low level drug offenses would be much more effectively managed with alternatives to incarceration and the availability of drug treatment.

These were still relatively unconventional notions not so long ago.

Today, it would seem that we have not only the more liberal-leaning and progressive groups on our side, we also have a sizable presence of people on the right in support. As Obama noted in his speech, there are outrageously unlikely partnerships at the table like the Koch Brothers and the NAACP, and Van Jones and Newt Gingrich.

“In too many cases, our criminal justice system ends up being a pipeline from underfunded, inadequate schools to overcrowded jails.” – Obama

Wow. Is that the sound of the president of the United States acknowledging the “school-to-prison pipeline?” These words must give a powerful light of hope to grassroots community activists who have been shouting this message far from the halls of power for decades.

President Obama hit most of the main rallying cries for criminal justice reform: everything from stopping the cruel practices of solitary confinement and rampant indifference to prison rape to ending employment discrimination against formerly incarcerated people and restoring their voting rights. For longtime reformers, it was an impossible dream come true.

This seems like an historic moment and a turning point for fixing the criminal justice system in this country. With the powerful pledge of a second term U.S. president, who just gave clemency to 46 people serving draconian sentences and promises to do the same for dozens more, it really feels like the wind is in our sails. Like the song that was playing as President Obama was leaving the NAACP stage, “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.”

But Obama’s promise for overhauling our cruel and ineffective approach to crime and punishment, which is destroying millions of American lives and wasting countless resources, must be realized. Let this not be empty rhetoric.

A stage has been set but now all the actors have got to get to work. The stars are aligned and the time is now.

Sharda Sekaran is the managing director of communications for the Drug Policy Alliance.

 This commentary originally was published in the Huffington Post at:

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New York Times

Obama Calls for Effort to Fix a ‘Broken System’ of Criminal Justice, By Peter Baker, JULY 14, 2015

PHILADELPHIA — President Obama on Tuesday called for a sweeping bipartisan effort to fix what he called “a broken system” of criminal justice that has locked up too many Americans for too long, especially a whole generation of young black and Hispanic men.

In a long and at times passionate address to a convention of the N.A.A.C.P., Mr. Obama said the mass incarceration of the past two decades had gone too far and left many communities devastated. He tied what he called the bias built into the system to the racially charged upheaval in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.

“In recent years, the eyes of more Americans have been opened to this truth partly because of cameras, partly because of tragedy, partly because the statistics cannot be ignored,” he said. “We can’t close our eyes anymore. And the good news — and this is truly good news — is that good people of all political persuasions are starting to think we need to do something about this.”

The president’s speech was intended to build on a movement for change that has crossed party lines. Republican and Democratic lawmakers have teamed up with the support of liberal and conservative advocacy groups to propose a variety of measures to overhaul the system. In his speech, Mr. Obama singled out two Republicans who have been leading legislative efforts, Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and John Cornyn of Texas.

Mr. Obama’s speech came a day after he commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent prisoners, bringing his total to 89, though still just a tiny fraction of those who have applied for clemency. On Thursday, Mr. Obama will go to Oklahoma to become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, where he will talk about the need for more humane conditions.

In effect, Mr. Obama used his address on Tuesday to put meat on the bones of his more thematic speech on race at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, one of nine black churchgoers killed last month in Charleston, S.C. While emphasizing that the police do heroic work and that many people deserve to be locked up, he outlined a series of changes he said Congress should consider.

Among other things, he said the country should focus more resources on early childhood education to prevent young people from straying in the first place. He called for a sentencing overhaul bill to be passed this year that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences “or get rid of them entirely,” favoring treatment or other alternatives for many drug offenders.

He called for better conditions for prisoners, saying, “They are also Americans.” He deplored overcrowding. He said he had asked for a review of solitary confinement, declaring that it was “not going to make us safer” to hold an inmate alone in a cell for 23 hours a day. And he condemned prison rape and said it should be treated more seriously. “We shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture,” he said. “That’s no joke.”

He also said the country needed to make it easier for offenders to re-enter society after prison. He endorsed the effort to “ban the box,” meaning the question many employers ask applicants about past convictions, and he said those who serve their sentences “should be able to vote.”

In making his case, he noted that the United States has a far higher incarceration rate than China or Europe and that black and Hispanic men “are more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained.”

But he also made a financial argument. With the $80 billion spent on incarceration every year, he said, the United States could instead provide universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old, or double the salaries of every high school teacher in America.

Few if any other presidents have given a speech extolling the rights of prisoners and calling for lighter sentences, at least for nonviolent criminals. But with the convergence of the political left and right behind change, advocates said he clearly felt politically safe to focus more attention on these issues.

“There’s no feeling that he’s about to touch a third rail,” Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in an interview. “I don’t think he feels that way anymore.”

Indeed, rather than criticizing Mr. Obama, Republicans on Tuesday made it clear that they shared some of the same concerns and had been working on bipartisan legislation to address them.

“Legislating takes a lot of hard work,” Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “We’ve had hours of meaningful discussions up to this point, and those of us in the room are committed to trying to reach an agreement that can gain wide bipartisan support.”