The Best Week Ever in Criminal Justice Reform
July 17, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — If you didn’t know any better and just went by this week’s events, you’d think the United States is experiencing an awakening to criminal justice and the plight of mass incarceration. At least that’s what the news cycle would have us conclude.
First there was President Obama’s commutation of 46 federal sentences, the vast majority aimed at nonviolent drug offenders serving ungodly terms — 13 of them condemned to life in prison. “I believe that at its heart, America is a nation of second chances,” Obama said in a video announcing the move, “and I believe these folks deserve their second chance.”
Then there was a rousing speech Obama gave to a friendly crowd at the NAACP national convention, during which he ran through all the bullet points of criminal justice reform that advocates have decried for years — mandatory minimum sentences, solitary confinement, prison rape, reentry efforts, the taxpayer burden of the carceral state.
“Any system that allows us to turn a blind eye to hopelessness and despair, that’s not a justice system. That’s an injustice system,” Obama said, and later called on Congress to enact reform.
Before the same group on Wednesday, former President Bill Clinton piggybacked off Obama and took to the lectern to express remorse for how his own administration contributed to the plight of placing more bodies behind bars. “Yesterday, the president spoke a long time and very well on criminal justice reform,” he said. “But I want to say a few words about it. Because I signed a bill that made the problem worse and I want to admit it.”
Stopping short of an apology, Clinton was referencing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the so-called “crime bill” that arguably did more than any other of the era to exacerbate the prison population by dangling federal money in exchange for “truth in sentencing” laws and other concessions at the state level, plus other unduly punitive measures at the federal level.
“The good news is we had the biggest drop in crime in history,” Clinton said. “The bad news is we had a lot of people who were locked up, who were minor actors, for way too long.”
Obama visited six of those minor actors on Thursday, when he toured El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma, making history as the first-ever sitting president to visit a federal prison. “There but for the grace of God,” Obama said after the visit, reflecting on what his life would have been like had he landed where one in 12 other black men do in America. “And that is something we all have to think about.”
All of the above is commendable, but very little of it impressed Professor Michelle Alexander, a long-time prison reformer and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The book was my choice in the Fault Lines summer reading list.
Her remarks are worth printing in full because it’s political and legal realism at its purest — a stark takeaway for a week the political news cycle would have us believe is the best week ever in criminal justice reform:
History is being made this week. After decades of relentless “tough on crime” and “war on criminals” rhetoric from politicians, and after of millions of lives destroyed by our criminal injustice system, this week our current president, and a former one, announced that it was time to reverse course. Days ago, President Obama gave a speech to the NAACP calling for major reform of our criminal injustice system. Former President Clinton addressed the same crowd, offering an (utterly insufficient) apology for his role in birthing the system of mass incarceration. And today, President Obama is visiting a federal prison—treating those held in cages as human beings worthy of our collective concern—something no other president in history has ever done.
No one can deny the significance of these events. But I hope we do not lose sight of what is truly happening here. This is not the story of a heroic president demonstrating moral courage or the story of a bipartisan awakening to the dignity and value of poor people and people of color locked in cages. No. This is not that story at all.
There was precisely zero political risk in what Obama and Clinton said to the NAACP this week. And Obama’s prison visit, while symbolically important, posed zero political risk. The reason why zero moral or political courage has been required for this week’s events is the real story here. It’s a story of what happens when the perceived interests of white people of great privilege and power happen to align with the interests of poor people and people of color who are suddenly refusing to tolerate business as usual and who are building a bold and rebellious grassroots movement that threatens the status quo.
This is not to deny that people of all colors, faiths, and walks of life are waking up to the human rights nightmare that is occurring in our so-called “justice system.” And this is not an attack on Obama. Obama is a brilliant politician. He is quite likely a good husband, father and friend. What he is not is a courageous leader on issues of race or criminal justice. At least not yet, and we are deep into his second term.
We are at a critical moment, but there is nothing inevitable about the change that must come. And the real heroes are those whose names we do not know, but who have been working tirelessly for this moment for many, many years. So while we, quite rightly, ought to celebrate the milestones that have been reached this week, I hope that we will also take time to pause and remember those who have been left behind, including the tens of thousands of people who were denied clemency by President Obama this week.
That’s the only thing you really need to know about the best week ever in criminal justice reform.
Main image via White House Photo by Pete Souza