America’s mass incarceration system: Freedom’s next frontier

July 24, 2015
Obama speaks at the NAACP's annual convention in Philadelphia

President Barack Obama at the NAACP’s convention in Philadelphia, July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

As the nation examines details about how a minor traffic stop of a young black woman in a Texas town ended in her death in a jail cell three days later, major questions again focus on the racial bias of the U.S. judicial system. This was the topic President Barack Obama tackled head-on in his speech to the NAACP national convention last week.

Obama delivered the equivalent of a Hail Mary completion when he called for sweeping judicial reform of the nation’s mass-incarceration policies. He laid out the tragic costs in lost opportunity of America’s carceral state. It marked a progressive turn for this president.

The consternation and hesitation this gifted orator often displays when weighing in on issues of race and violence was absent. Fresh off his soaring eulogy for state Senator Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina, and his new Iranian nuclear agreement, President Obama exuded some of the luster that candidate Obama deployed so effortlessly what seems like a lifetime ago.

Obama visits a federal prison in Oklahoma

President Barack Obama is shown the inside of a cell as he visits the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, July 16, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The president’s “mass incarceration” speech was remarkable, for two simple reasons. First, he used the term “mass incarceration.” This may seem like a low bar for such an urgent policy issue, but it has been set by the obstacle-ridden legislative government, within which the Obama administration has had to operate.

Second, he eloquently explained the opportunity costs of America’s incarceration sickness. For the $80 billion a year that the United States spends on mass imprisonment, Obama explained (and many have now cited) the nation could instead fund such vital initiatives as pre-kindergarten for all children ages 3 to 4,  forgive tuition costs for all U.S. public universities or double the salary of every public high school teacher in the nation.

The president’s focus on the opportunity costs in relation to public education was no mistake. It makes both policy-making and political sense. Many policy analysts have detailed the prison pipeline that, in too many cases, originates in U.S. public school systems.

One consequence of applying a zero-tolerance “crime fighting” approach to school discipline is that black and Latino students are more likely to be suspended and expelled. According to a 2009-2010 nationwide study, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts. Students more likely to be suspended and expelled are also more likely to drop out of school. Nearly 70 percent of all inmates in the United States, — a population that already features overrepresentation of black and Latino folks — have not graduated from high school.

Inmates walk around a gymnasium where they are housed due to overcrowding at the California Institution for Men state prison  in Chino

Inmates are housed in a gymnasium due to overcrowding at the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino, California, June 3, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

This erudite critique of mass incarceration from the president is vital. To overhaul the U.S. criminal-justice system and root out the diseases of racial, gender and class discrimination, a majority of American citizens and lawmakers must understand the dire costs of the nation’s current approach. Pushing these costs into the public debate requires the full complement of political leadership — local, regional and national.

That said, it is still difficult to fully appreciate the timing of one of this president’s most important — and most progressive — speeches.

Why did it take Obama so long to make the speech? The answer is complex and unsettling. The complexity reflects the fact that this is precisely the moment when his intervention may be most effective. And this is unsettling — for progressives particularly — because Obama’s measured approach to key political issues on the left may prove strategically sound.

One reason it took so long is that Obama is a pragmatist. Throughout his years in the White House, he has proven to be a measured political strategist. He has demonstrated that he is far more interested in what can get done, given the political or legislative circumstances, than in fighting unwinnable ideological battles.

In addition, throughout Obama’s presidency, moving forward on a progressive agenda — particularly aspects that address the nation’s inherent racial problems — has required at least two governing predicates. First, a quantifiable rationale, usually economic, that shows the practice of institutional racism as too costly for American society. Second, a groundswell of activist energy or public outcry must “push” him so that speaking directly about race becomes his only option.

This pattern was repeated here. Though Obama’s call for criminal-justice reform is based on the rampant institutional bias, the president emphasized the economic costs.

Inmates walk in at San Quentin state prison

Inmates walk in San Quentin state prison in San Quentin, California, June 8, 2012. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The $80-billion narrative resonates because it hinges on the principle of why opportunity costs matter. It’s not just that the nation spends way too much on locking people up — it’s that these resources could be invested in educating some of those same folks and transforming them from a drag on the economy to an asset.

The economics of mass incarceration, as Obama laid it out, don’t make sense. From a simple human-resources perspective, how can we account for the losses to this system over the past 30 years? At the height, more than 2 million people have been housed in America’s prison system. If the United States is 5 percent of the world’s population and accounts for 25 percent of the world’s prison population, then it would seem that Americans are far more criminal than the citizens of virtually every other nation.

Obama’s most counterintuitive point — that 2014 marks the first year that both mass incarceration and crime have declined nationally — only underscores the absurdity of what we pay to warehouse human beings for nonviolent drug offenses.

Again, the opportunity costs matter. The destruction of American families, the absence of treatment and rehabilitation for substance abusers, and the under-education of millions of Americans, many of whom are not violent criminals, continue to produce deleterious outcomes, especially in communities like Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland, Ohio, Baltimore, Maryland, and Charleston, South Carolina.

The practical rationale for addressing this deeply racialized problem presents the type of racial issue that this president clearly feels most comfortable addressing. It was painful watching Obama equivocate about the eruption of violence in Ferguson last year. But when he promotes his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, Obama’s level of comfort is palpable. Though My Brother’s Keeper is about race, it is also very much about confronting certain economic realities: Structural racism is expensive.

Obama is also standing on the shoulders of civil rights activists and community organizers who have demanded change in — and in some cases the abolition of — the “prison industrial complex.” A national groundswell for criminal-justice reform has stitched together a broad range of initiatives, deeply troubling issues and activists’ organized responses.

Black Lives Matter is wrestling directly with what many regard as state-sanctioned killing of unarmed men and women of color, including the death of Eric Gardner, killed roughly a year ago on Staten Island.

At the same time, drug policy groups and their many law enforcement partners are working together to end the war on drugs, which may rank with Prohibition as one of the greatest policy failures of the 20th century. Over the past 40 years, federal and state governments have spent more than $1 trillion on the war on drugs. Yet over the past 20-plus years, national rates of drug use and drug abuse have remained roughly the same.

Community leaders and activists have also challenged the stop-and-frisk policies that emerged as a byproduct of the war on drugs. They have raised serious questions about racial profiling, sentencing disparities and hiring practices throughout the criminal justice system.

Obama visits a federal prison in Oklahoma

President Barack Obama, photographed through a prison cell window, tours the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, July 16, 2015.REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The combined efforts of leaders, scholars and activists, at all levels, are projecting a powerful message. The hegemonic era of law and order without common sense is finally coming to an end. The president’s mass-incarceration speech and his unprecedented visit to a federal prison last week are welcome signals that criminal-justice reform is both possible and practical.

Even for the president’s critics on the left, the mass-incarceration speech is hard not to like. Some may insist, “too little, way too late.” Others may argue that the speech, which reads as if Obama brought in former Attorney General Eric Holder and Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, as consultants, is another case where this president is leading from behind.

Consider that criminal-justice reform is a direct shout-out to Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senator Corey Booker (D-N.Y.).  Many others have proposed it as well.

Former President Bill Clinton has also weighed in, expressing regret for his own “tough on crime” policies. He apologized to the NAACP convention the day after Obama’s speech. Clinton acknowledged that his 1994 crime bill worsened the effects of mass incarceration for too many families, especially in black and brown communities.

Yet even though Obama is late, he is welcome at the end-mass-incarceration party. In this last quarter of his presidency, Obama is increasingly showing signs that he is taking cues from his left. He has spoken directly and powerfully about race. He has described the structural and systemic nature of racism in our nation. He has used his executive powers to back up some of what he says, and he is also talking about policies that could help move forward aspects of his more progressive agenda.

These are positions that the president’s critics on the left have been pushing him to embrace since he took office. Although this Obama may have been a long time coming, his arrival is surely a victory for those who have been calling for criminal-justice reform.

For the victims of this system locked in prison cells, this moment when a substantive national conversation is unfolding and when policy changes are in process is more than welcome. For them, it is a lifeline.


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If you’re going to whine about the time, don’t do the crime. How simple is that? Obviously not simple enough for American Blacks.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

The prison system is an ever-growing boondoggle. We lock up five times more people than we did in the 1950’s. And are you feeling any safer? Boondoggle. And a very expensive one.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

And, yeah, statistically, locking up more criminals HAS made more people safer.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

ARJTurgot2, check with the NRA on that. Their view is that world is more dangerous than ever. Arm up and buy up. Concur?

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Obama has the power to end the farce on drugs and free all non violent drug offenders with the stroke of a pen. He is just pandering for votes for his party by making these speeches.

Posted by Sheeplessuck | Report as abusive

Turn our prisons into a labor camps and problem solved we gonna beat China and all the criminals will acquire manufacturing skills and work habit.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

The crime all too often being Driving While Black, Walking Down The Street While Black or even just being Alive While Black, ain’t that right LetBalanceCome?

I am honestly surprised that the United States gets anything other than derisive horse laughter and the middle finger whenever we go preaching to other countries about human rights. Near daily murders of black males by a racist, militarized police force. The School-to-Prison Pipeline. Upwards of 2 MILLION people behind bars, far more than any other country including Iran, Russia or China – you know, those terrible dictatorships we like to whine about? Oh and let’s not forget the GITMO concentration camp which by the way is a hotbed of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Until we get our own disgusting house in order, nobody else on earth should pay the least bit of attention to the US when we go around the world fat-mouthing about human rights. In the future, people will look back on this era with the same sort of disgust and revulsion that we look back at the time of Jim Crow and Slavery. And they will honestly wonder why no one ever rose up in revolt.

Posted by t4525h13 | Report as abusive