Ronald Day, Associate Vice President at The Fortune Society

A Response To President Obama’s Criminal Justice Proposals

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

On July 13, President Obama used his Executive Power to grant clemency to 46 people convicted of non-violent offenses.

This is a step in the right direction for criminal justice reform, as was his visit to a federal prison, and using his bully pulpit to call for drastic change to various intersections of the criminal justice system.

In a speech at the NAACP the following day, the President railed against the treatment of people involved in the system. At the front end, he criticized the utility of mandatory minimum sentences: “For non-violent drug crime, we need to lower mandatory-minimum sentences, or get rid of them entirely.”

In the belly or middle section, the President sharply denounced egregious policies and practices: “We should not tolerate overcrowding in prison, gang activity, or rape in prison, and we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture.” The President also questioned the efficacy of solitary confinement: “Locking people up in tiny cells for 23 hours a day for months, sometimes for years at a time. That is not going to make us safer.”

At the back end, the President appealed for addressing the “collateral consequences” of a criminal conviction. With respect to employment, he asserted: “Let’s follow the growing number of states and cities and private companies who’ve decided to ban the box on job applications so that former prisoners who have done their time and are now trying to get straight with society have a decent shot in a job interview.” He also lambasted the disenfranchisement of people with criminal histories: “And if folks have served their time and they’ve reentered society, they should be able to vote.”

These proposals are sweeping for a President but à propos of this era of mass incarceration. They are particularly important because harsh and counterproductive polices enacted by politicians are largely responsible for the criminal justice conundrum that the country is in.

Moreover, policymakers can’t simply direct people to act responsibly. There needs to be support at the other end of the rhetoric.

President Obama offered some advice to the people who received a commutation of sentence: “I’ve made clear to them that reentering society is going to require responsibility on their part, and hard work and smarter choices.” He went on to urge the country: “We can make sure that more of our citizens, even those who have made mistakes, have a chance to become productive members of society and contribute to this country that we love.”

I agree with the President that it will take hard work and smarter choices. This logic obviously extends to the government, too, which has the responsibility to propagate the idea that it’s imprudent to discriminate based entirely on criminal record without due consideration to any number of factors (e.g. age, evidence of rehabilitation, number of years since the conviction). Indeed, if a person is to have a reasonable chance to become a productive member of society, then there needs to be opportunities that foster successful reintegration. Employment and restoration of voting rights is critical, but there are other paramount issues that need to be addressed.

Here are a few:

  • Housing. The homeless are more likely to cycle in and out of correctional facilities, and people returning home from incarceration find it difficult to secure safe and affordable housing (particularly supportive housing). Securing a job is essential but unrealistic if a person’s housing needs are not adequately addressed. The President has called for banning the box on job applications, but where is the push to ban the box in the housing context? Current federal laws and regulations contribute to the problem in many respects and this is a clear area for reform.
  • Education. The President has been a champion in promoting education, particularly higher education for low-income families and communities. The value of a quality education cannot be overstated, but educational/vocational programs have been disappearing from jails/prison around the country. College prison programs, which were once funded by Pell grants, are now scarce inside prisons despite evidence of them effectively reducing recidivism rates. And colleges in the community routinely deny entry to people with criminal records even though there is no evidence that a campus is safer by employing these blanket policies.
  • Access To Mental Health. “Hurt people hurt people.” Individuals in disadvantaged communities are dealing with trauma and mental illness, among other issues, at significantly high rates. Hence, any reasonable call for reform needs to include greater access to mental health treatment. As the New York Times reported recently, our jails have essentially becomes warehouses for people suffering from mental illness.
  • Humanize People With Criminal Histories. Going to jail/prison is a dehumanizing experience, but it doesn’t have to be. People can and should be treated humanely in spite of an arrest or conviction. It often starts with the notion that some minority children are inherently bad and deserving of harsh treatment (school suspension, arrest, and entrance into the school-to-prison pipeline), and that specific people and communities need to be over-policed. It extends to instances where the police, who are trained to de-escalate encounters, actually escalate these situations, increasing feelings of alienation between police and minority communities. It continues with the derogatory language used to describe people with justice involvement: “inmate,” “prisoner,” “con,” “convict,” “felon,” “criminal,” “ex-con,” and so on. Although President Obama highlighted overcrowding, sexual abuse, gangs, and solitary confinement, he didn’t discuss physical abuse, inadequate medical care, and other factors that add credence to the dehumanizing of people in police and correctional custody.

Granting clemency to people serving long stints in prison — often life — and calling for significant reforms at various ends of the criminal justice spectrum is a step in the right direction.

More needs to be done, however, if we are to radically scale back the harm done to individuals and communities over the past several decades by harmful criminal justice policies. In the final analysis, change will need to occur with respect to people convicted of violent felony offenses, as there is significant variation in these crimes. But that discussion will be left for another day.

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