The latter half of Obama’s presidency has been characterized by unanticipated activism in support of criminal justice reform. The murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri was a major catalyst in the nationwide debate over police brutality, use of force, and the criminal justice system in general. Protests over similar shootings have only added to the debate, and President Obama has not shied away from adding his opinion regarding the racial implications of events occurring in cities like Baltimore and Charleston.
On Thursday, Obama took his efforts to reform the criminal justice system a step further by becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison. Police violence and racial profiling, of course, are far from the only issues negatively affecting the millions of Americans who have been subjected to the criminal justice system. For starters, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
According to a 2013 report, 716 of every 100,000 people in the U.S. were imprisoned. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 48.6 percent of inmates in federal jail were arrested for nonviolent drug crimes. An estimated 25 percent of the entire world’s prisoners are in U.S. jails. Compared to the rest of the countries in the world, these statistics are appalling. The U.S.’s criminal justice system is a serious human rights issue. Obama’s visit took place at the El Reno Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma. He toured the prison, met with a few inmates, and discussed these issues. According to the New York Times, the inmates Obama spoke to were nonviolent drug offenders. His visit made him reflect on his privilege to have made it through life without ending up in jail. He, like the two presidents before him, openly admitted to using drugs like marijuana and cocaine in his younger years. “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,” Obama said. “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.”
The president’s visit was largely symbolic, somewhat of a PR-choreographed stunt to show the nation that he truly cares about criminal justice reform and isn’t afraid to visit a facility where many individuals have been imprisoned under his administration. It’s part of the president’s overall campaign to resolve what he can accomplish during his last year or so in office. He recently commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders, another symbolic move that helps but still does little to actually solve the overall issue.
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Regardless of his policies throughout the first seven years of his presidency, Obama's visit marks an important step forward. “It’s not normal,” Obama said about the country’s high incarceration rate. “It’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people making mistakes. And we’ve got to be able to distinguish between dangerous individuals who need to be incapacitated and incarcerated versus young people who are in an environment in which they are adapting, but if given different opportunities, a different version of life, they could thrive.”
The visit has given the president the platform to speak candidly about these issues, letting those who are currently incarcerated for nonviolent crimes know that the nation's highest office is working towards changing the status quo. The good news is that, heading into another presidential election year, the issue of criminal justice reform is not bipartisan. Sen. Rand Paul, in fact, has been one of the most surprising proponents of criminal justice reform.
The GOP presidential hopeful was one of the only politicians to travel to Ferguson following the Michael Brown shooting. He, along with other members of the GOP and the Democratic Party alike, has commented about how the nation unjustly imprisons people of color for non-violent crimes. It's becoming increasingly clear that something needs to change. Even as once taboo social issues like marijuana legalization become the norm, thousands are still imprisoned by the U.S. criminal justice system for both violent and nonviolent crimes. Overhauling the system will take a significant effort by both the executive and legislative branches.
Although the issue isn’t split along party lines, it will still require action that may not come as soon as the Obama administration would like. Before Obama does leave office, however, he has the opportunity to use his pardon power to excuse those imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. If he truly cares about reforming the system, he should make full use of that authority. For now, visiting a federal prison is at least a step in the right direction.