No, it’s not what you think! But Bill’s confession at the end of this July 16 editorial in the New York Times is a positive thing, and I think the piece is worth publishing verbatim, even if it is a bit longer than our usual posts.
President Obama Takes on the Prison Crisis
On Thursday, for the first time in American history, a president walked into a federal prison. President Obama was there to see for himself a small piece of the damage that the nation’s decades-long binge of mass incarceration has wrought.
Mr. Obama’s visit to El Reno, a medium-security prison in Oklahoma, capped off a week in which he spoke powerfully about the failings of a criminal justice system that has damaged an entire generation of Americans, locking up millions — disproportionately men of color — at a crippling cost to them, their families and communities, as well as to the taxpayers and society as a whole.
Speaking to reporters after touring the cells, Mr. Obama reflected on the people he met there. “These are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes that I made, and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made. The difference is they did not have the kinds of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.”
This indisputable argument has been made by many others, most notably former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., who was the administration’s most powerful advocate for sweeping justice reforms. But it is more significant coming from the president, not just in his words but in his actions. On Monday Mr. Obama commuted the sentences of 46 people, most serving 20 years or more, for nonviolent drug crimes. It was a tiny fraction of the more than 30,000 people seeking clemency, but the gesture recognized some of the injustices of America’s harsh justice system.
On Tuesday, in a wide-ranging speech to the N.A.A.C.P. [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], Mr. Obama explained that people who commit violent crimes are not the reason for the exploding federal prison population over the last few decades. Most of the growth has come instead from nonviolent, low-level drug offenders caught up in absurdly harsh mandatory minimum sentences that bear no relation to the seriousness of their offense or to the maintenance of public safety.
“If you’re a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society,” Mr. Obama said. “You have to be held accountable and make amends. But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence.”
Mandatory minimums like these should be reduced or eliminated completely, he said. Judges should have more discretion to shape sentences and to use alternatives to prison, like drug courts or community programs, that are cheaper and can be more effective at keeping people from returning to crime.
Mr. Obama also put a spotlight on intolerable conditions, like overuse of solitary confinement in which more than 80,000 inmates nationwide are held on any given day. Many are being punished for minor infractions or are suffering from mental illness. “Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time?” Mr. Obama asked. He said he asked the Justice Department to review this practice.
He talked about community investment, especially in early-childhood education and in lower-income minority communities, as the best way to stop crime before it starts. And he spoke of the importance of removing barriers to employment, housing and voting for former prisoners. “Justice is not only the absence of oppression,” Mr. Obama said, “it is the presence of opportunity.”
As Mr. Obama acknowledged, however, his powers are limited. Any comprehensive solution to this criminal justice catastrophe must come from Congress and the state legislatures which for decades enacted severe sentencing laws and countless other harmful measures. In recent years, the opposite trend has taken hold as lawmakers in both conservative and liberal states have reduced populations in state prisons — where the vast majority of inmates are held — as well as crime rates.
It’s time that Congress fixed the federal system. After failed efforts at reform, an ambitious new bill called the SAFE Justice Act is winning supporters, including, on Thursday, the House speaker, John Boehner, and may have enough bipartisan support to pass. It would, among several other helpful provisions, eliminate mandatory minimums for many low-level drug crimes and create educational and other programs in prison that have been shown to reduce recidivism.
One sign of how far the politics of criminal justice has shifted was a remark by former president Bill Clinton, who signed a 1994 law that played a key role in the soaring growth of America’s prison system. On Wednesday, Mr. Clinton said, “I signed a bill that made the problem worse. And I want to admit it.” It was a long overdue admission, and another notable moment in a week full of them.