President Obama will make history today when he becomes the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. The visit is the latest in a series of speeches and events this week aimed at drawing attention to the need for criminal justice reform.
On Monday, Obama commuted the sentences of 46 people. And on Tuesday he gave a rousing address calling for an end to America’s mass incarceration system and bringing to light persistent racial inequities. Delivered at the NAACP national convention in Philadelphia, the speech has been praised on both sides of the aisle.
However, the bipartisan push for criminal justice reform will be inadequate if it fails to also address the rampant and systemic inequalities that continue to put African Americans at a disadvantage.
“There is a long history of inequality in the criminal justice system in America,” Obama said. “In recent years, the eyes of more Americans have been opened to this, partly because of cameras, partly because of tragedy, partly because the statistics cannot be ignored – we can no longer close our eyes.”
There are 2.2 million people currently imprisoned in America, a 500 percent increase over the past 30 years. The U.S. imprisons more people than the top 35 European countries combined. Half of these prisoners are serving time for nonviolent crimes, and more than half of federal prisoners are serving time for drug crimes. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
The president spoke about a “point of diminishing returns,” where locking more people up does not reduce crime. A recent study for the Brennan Center suggests that mass incarceration has little effect on the crime rate, period. It found that mass incarceration accounted for about 5 percent of the crime decline in the 1990s, a minuscule percentage, and that since 2000 the effect of increasing incarceration on the crime rate has been “effectively zero.”
Obama also focused on the racial disparities in our justice system. “The bottom line is that in too many places, black boys and black men, Latino boys and Latino men experience being treated differently under the law,” he said. “People of color are more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained. African Americans are more likely to be arrested. They are more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime.”
Blacks and Hispanics make up 30 percent of the population, but 60 percent of inmates. One in 35 African-American men are incarcerated, compared to one in 214 white men. Obama noted that one in nine African-American kids has a parent in prison. “What is that doing to our community? What is that doing to our children?”
Obama also pushed a number of criminal justice reforms, including reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes, lowering or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, using alternatives to prison, and funding in-prison job-training programs and drug and rehabilitation programs. He also called for improving substandard prison conditions, including reducing solitary confinement, rape, and overcrowding, as well as “banning the box” – the question on employment application forms that asks if an applicant has a criminal record – and allowing ex-felons to vote.
As the president mentioned, most of these reforms are bipartisan. Conservative legislatures in states such as Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia have already implemented criminal justice reforms. On the same day as Obama’s speech, the Senate held a panel on criminal justice reform to combine bills sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans. The Senate Judiciary Committee has been working for months on putting together a comprehensive package of reforms that will reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders, let well-behaved prisoners off early, and incentivize in-prison rehabilitation programs. It is expected to be announced before the August recess.
These are undoubtedly positive developments. But criminal justice reform can only go so far in addressing the gross racial inequalities that exist in the U.S. As Obama eloquently put it, “Justice is not only the absence of oppression. It is the presence of opportunity.” The president noted that when he entered office, a 9 percent unemployment rate was widely considered a crisis. The unemployment rate among African Americans is currently 9.5 percent, which should also be recognized as a crisis.
Kisha Bird, Director of Youth Policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), echoed these sentiments in a phone interview. She pointed out that young black men have an employment rate of only 16.5 percent, compared to 29 percent youth employment overall. Bird made clear the connection between employment and incarceration: “When you give [young black men] the opportunity to work, they will take it.”
Yet we are doing just the opposite; federal funding for Department of Labor Youth employment has been cut 12 percent since 2008, she noted.
(CLASP is hosting a forum on the importance of investing in boys and young men of color on Friday, which you can watch here.)
In addition to the employment disparity, black people also are disproportionately plagued by poorer housing, education, and health care. As long as African Americans continue to be disadvantaged economically and socially, more of them will end up in jail. If we truly want an equal criminal justice system, we need an equal economic system as well.
Policies such as universal preschool, equal education funding, job programs to reach full employment, and expanded housing and nutritional support are vitally important to closing the economic gap and making our criminal justice system actually just. President Obama should make this connection even clearer, and politicians need to realize that criminal justice policies go hand in hand with economic ones. As Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J), a leader in criminal justice reform, put it, “for many communities, it is a matter of life or death.”
This article has been updated to correct the sponsorship of CLASP’s Friday forum on young males of color.