“That’s what strikes me. There but for the grace of God.”
That was President Obama’s reaction when he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison, the medium-security El Reno Federal Correctional Institution near Oklahoma City.
“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,” the president told the press. “(W)e have a tendency sometimes to almost take for granted or think it’s normal that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system. It’s not normal. … What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things.”
Obama’s statement was part of a new-found commitment to reform the criminal justice system, including reducing long-term mandatory sentencing, alleviating conditions within prisons and new efforts to help ex-offenders get a start on the outside.
Obama is not alone. Driven partly by the financial squeeze and partly by spreading protests, reform of mass incarceration suddenly has bipartisan appeal. Hillary Clinton decried mass incarceration policies as “wrong,” even though many of them were championed by her husband. Bill Clinton admitted his policies had “put too many people in prison and for too long.” As Republican governors sought ways to save money and address overcrowding in jails, Newt Gingrich joined in calling for sentencing reform. A new coalition, The Coalition for Public Safety, has been launched with support from everyone from the ACLU and George Soros to FreedomWorks and the Koch brothers. Senators from both parties have rushed to introduce bills to revise federal sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders. The president recently commuted the sentences of 46 men and women convicted under those guidelines.
More than 2 million people are still held in prisons and jails. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prison inmates. Millions of lives have been destroyed by harsh sentencing for what the president recognized were the “normal mistakes” that teenagers make.
Of the 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons, 93 percent are men. About two out of three are people of color. The majority is being held for nonviolent crimes (drugs, property theft and “public order” offenses).
Sensible sentences would be a good first step but hardly sufficient. These destructive policies, now admitted to be wrong-headed, have devastated Black and Latino communities, with millions of lives ruined. If you careen recklessly off the road and smash into someone’s living room, sorry isn’t sufficient. At the very least, you will be responsible for repairing the damage done.
We need fundamental reform of our criminal justice system from racial profiling to mandatory sentences. But we also have to redress the damage done to families and communities. Commuting sentences is a start, but we need new programs to rehabilitate those who are sick or addicted. We need investment and jobs so that those who made stupid mistakes can find decent work.
When Reagan and Clinton led a bipartisan push to lock more people up, they provided some of the money needed for new prisons, more cops and more equipment. The bipartisan push to rectify the wrong-headed policies should provide the money needed to correct the damage, and to insure that kids who make mistakes receive a new start, not a life in ruins.
After Baltimore, the reform movement has gained momentum. But apologies and sentencing changes aren’t enough. It’s not enough to save money on prisons the young don’t need; we’ve got to invest in the schools, training and jobs that they desperately need.
Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. is founder and president of the Chicago-based Rainbow PUSH Coalition. You can keep up with his work at www.rainbowpush.org