US President Barack Obama, alongside Ronald Warlick (L), a correctional officer, tours a cell block at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, July 16, 2015. Obama is the first sitting US President to visit a federal prison, in a push to reform one of the most expensive and crowded prison systems in the world. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Last week, President Obama paid unprecedented attention to the United States’ prison system. Moving from the “tough on crime” model of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, the Obama Administration has instituted a “smart on crime” model. In line with this shift, the White House focused on sentencing reform this past week. Here’s a brief run-down of some important milestones from Obama’s effort to address America’s prison problem.
Obama commuted the sentences for 46 men and women serving federal sentences for mainly non-violent drug crimes. Most of the 46 were sentenced to at least 20 years behind bars, and 14 faced life sentences for their offenses. Now, they will be released on November 10th, thanks to Obama’s executive action. In a letter, Obama told the 46 men and women: “I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances. But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices.”
With these 46 commutations, Obama has now granted clemency to almost 90 individuals, almost all of whom were serving disproportionately long sentences for low-level, non-violent drug crimes. As victims of the harsh sentencing policies that proliferated during the War on Drugs, many of the recipients of these clemency grants would have already served their sentences had they been convicted of the same crimes today.
Although this is a major milestone for undoing the damage caused by decades of severe sentences—disproportionately applied to African-Americans and Latinos—and over-policing of low-income communities of color, it is still important to note that these 46 commutations pale in comparison to the massive scale of America’s prison population. Currently, drug offenders make up almost 50% of the country’s federal prison population, which has exceeded 200,000 people. Compared to the 95,165 people currently incarcerated at the federal level for drug-related crimes, the releases of 46 people certainly seems like a less significant step to counteracting the effects of mass incarceration.
During his speech in Philadelphia, President Obama called for the full enfranchisement of formerly incarcerated people convicted of felonies. According to The Sentencing Project, about 5.85 million formerly incarcerated people nationwide are ineligible to vote, even though they have served their sentences. Obama also announced that Attorney General Loretta Lynch would begin an investigation of the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons. The unregulated use of solitary confinement—in which inmates are left alone in small cells for up to 24 hours a day—has recently garnered national media attention due to the suicide of Kalief Browder, the New York man who spent three years as a teenager confined at Riker’s Island (including almost two years in solitary confinement) without being convicted of a crime.
Here are some of the most poignant and promising quotes from Obama’s speech:
- “While the people in our prisons have made some mistakes, and sometimes big mistakes, they are also Americans.”
- “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it.”
- “Any system that allows us to turn a blind eye to hopelessness and despair—that’s not a justice system. It’s an injustice system. But that’s an extension and a reflection of some broader decisions that we’re making as a society. And that has to change.”
- “If folks have served their time, and they’ve re-entered society, they should be able to vote.”
- “Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day for months, sometimes for years, at a time? That is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It’s not smart. Our prisons should be a place where we can train people for skills that can help them find a job, not train them to become more hardened criminals.”
To watch the full speech, click here.
Obama made history by becoming the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. He visited the Federal Correctional Institute in El Reno, Oklahoma, a medium-security prison that houses 1,300 men. Although the prison was on lockdown for the visit, with most inmates out of sight, President Obama spent 45 minutes speaking with 6 inmates convicted of non-violent drug offenses. Their stories seemed to resonate with Obama, who said, “When they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes 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 visit has brought the insides of prisons to the attention of the American public. For many Americans who have never been up close and personal with the inner workings of the criminal justice system, it is a sobering glimpse into abyss of the American carceral state. Obama spoke personally about his own privileges—including a stable education and many opportunities for growth—that allowed him to succeed, and he highlighted that these opportunities were denied to many of the people who find themselves incarcerated for low-level offenses—particularly drug-related crimes.
Advocates praised Obama’s visit by saying that he helped to personalize this issue in a way that has seldom been achieved by a president. Cornell William Brooks, the president of the NAACP, explained: “[Prisoners are] out of sight and out of mind. To have a president say by his actions, by his speech, by his example, ‘You’re in sight and in mind of the American public and of this democracy,’ it’s critically important.”
This exciting week in criminal justice should not be underestimated. The issue of prisons has rarely been acknowledged in the public arena, so this attention by President Obama is long overdue. However, it is also important to note that mass incarceration is part of a larger systematic issue. One week of intensive attention will not undo the scope of damage done by racist and unfair policing, the War on Drugs, and Tough on Crime policies. It will take a much larger societal shift to a holistic, restorative criminal justice system in order to right the wrongs of mass incarceration.