Say It, Mr. President
I firmly believe that at some point during his second administration President Obama is going to address the issue of mass incarceration in America. What I fear is that he is going to wait so long, and ultimately do so with such caution, as to minimize his potential impact.
I'll be listening to his State of the Union tonight, hoping against hope that he says something, and says something bold. He's made clear he has other priorities -- the economy, immigration, climate change and now gun violence -- but what a difference it would make for him to speak to this issue when he addresses the nation.
There's no question he gets it. Barack Obama was a strong proponent of criminal justice reform as a state legislator. He spoke about it when he ran for president the first time. His administration worked hard during his first years in office to eliminate the racially disproportionate disparity in federal sanctions for crack and powder cocaine, winning a bipartisan compromise to at least reduce the disparity from 100:1 to 18:1. And he made clear in a Time magazine interview just two months ago that he views over-incarceration for non-violent offenses as a real problem:
Well, I don't think it's any secret that we have one of the two or three highest incarceration rates in the world, per capita. I tend to be pretty conservative, pretty law and order, when it comes to violent crime. My attitude is, is that when you rape, murder, assault somebody, that you've made a choice; the society has every right to not only make sure you pay for that crime, but in some cases to disable you from continuing to engage in violent behavior.
But there's a big chunk of that prison population, a great huge chunk of our criminal justice system that is involved in nonviolent crimes. And it is having a disabling effect on communities. Obviously, inner city communities are most obvious, but when you go into rural communities, you see a similar impact. You have entire populations that are rendered incapable of getting a legitimate job because of a prison record. And it gobbles up a huge amount of resources. If you look at state budgets, part of the reason that tuition has been rising in public universities across the country is because more and more resources were going into paying for prisons, and that left less money to provide to colleges and universities.
But this is a complicated problem. One of the incredible transformations in this society that precedes me, but has continued through my presidency, even continued through the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, is this decline in violent crime. And that's something that we want to continue. And so I think we have to figure out what are we doing right to make sure that that downward trend in violence continues, but also are there millions of lives out there that are being destroyed or distorted because we haven't fully thought through our process.
Read that last line, that last clause, again: "but also are there millions of lives out there that are being destroyed or distorted because we haven't fully thought through our process." He didn't say a few; he didn't say thousands; he said millions. And the fact is that the president's not exaggerating -- not when this country has less than 5 percent of the world's population but almost 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population; not when our rate of incarceration is roughly five times that of most other nations; not when we rely on incarceration to an extent unparalleled in the history of democratic societies; not when almost six million Americans can't vote because they were convicted of a felony; not when one of every 32 adult Americans are under the supervision of the criminal justice system, with all the indignities, discriminations and disadvantages that that entails; and not when the tens of billions of dollars spent each year incarcerating fellow citizens displaces expenditures on education, research and non-incarcerative infrastructure.
James Webb, who represented Virginia in the U.S. Senate for the past six years, said it well: "There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice."
During President Obama's first term, I occasionally had opportunity to ask senior White House aides why the president was so silent on this issue. Some simply said he had to focus on other priorities. Others suggested that his being the first black president made him particularly wary of taking the issue on given the extraordinary extent to which over-incarceration in this country is about race and the mass incarceration of black men. But wasn't that precisely the reason, or at least a key reason, I asked, why President Obama needed to address the issue, and needed to provide the leadership that only he could provide. Maybe in a second term, they replied.
Well, that second term is now -- and what the president says tonight is going to frame his proactive agenda for the next four years. "Millions of lives," he said; millions of American lives "being destroyed or distorted because we haven't fully thought through our process." If ever there was a time and an issue for President Obama to assert his moral leadership, this is it.
Say it, Mr. President, please say it now.