July 22, 2015
(ANTIMEDIA) President Barack Obama recently became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. He punctuated this act by commuting the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, a move he claimed was the opening salvo in a comprehensive reform of America’s grossly unjust prison system.
Notably, even the Koch brothers agree with reforming the prison system….so where does that leave us in terms of reality versus rhetoric? Is our system and its elite handlers capable of and willing to tackle the prison industrial complex, or is this just more posturing from a president shaping his legacy as he shuffles off the White House lawn?
In a speech to the NAACP for its 106th National Convention, Obama addressed what he calls “A source of inequity that has ripple effects on families and on communities and ultimately on our nation — and that is our criminal justice system…[which] ends up being a pipeline from underfunded, inadequate schools to overcrowded jails.”
A blog post on The Economist nicely encapsulates what many politicos, particularly jaded progressives, might feel in response to this rhetoric, which is that it sounds “more like a wish list from a late-term president than a practical agenda.”
However, it is possible the President is serious about reform. Early in the speech, he rattled off an impressive statistical overview that shows he is at least cognizant of both the complexity and extremity of the situation:
“The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Think about that. Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s. We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined. And it hasn’t always been the case — this huge explosion in incarceration rates. In 1980, there were 500,000 people behind bars in America — half a million people in 1980…Today there are 2.2 million. It has quadrupled since 1980. Our prison population has doubled in the last two decades alone.”
In perhaps his most cogent remarks, Obama said, “If you’re a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society. You have to be held accountable and make amends. But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence.”
Some may find it refreshing to hear a sitting president deconstruct elements of the prison industrial complex. However, contrasting John F. Kennedy and his open indictment of the secret government infrastructure running the military industrial complex over 50 years ago, Obama stops short in his analysis. He does not paint the whole picture, whose brush strokes must include identifying the bureaucratic, political, and economic forces incentivizing financial spending on incarceration.
As aptly delineated by The Atlantic,
“The prison-industrial complex is not a conspiracy, guiding the nation’s criminal-justice policy behind closed doors. It is a confluence of special interests that has given prison construction in the United States a seemingly unstoppable momentum. It is composed of politicians, both liberal and conservative, who have used the fear of crime to gain votes; impoverished rural areas where prisons have become a cornerstone of economic development; private companies that regard the roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections not as a burden on American taxpayers but as a lucrative market; and government officials whose fiefdoms have expanded along with the inmate population.”
So, while Obama may very well have his heart in the right place, one must still wonder: is there any plan of action behind the rhetoric?
In his speech, Obama claims that his administration is working to reduce the federal prison population, citing a single bill that is “reducing the 100-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.”
He also cited previous collaborations with former Attorney General Eric Holder and ongoing work with Holder’s successor, Loretta Lynch. In the most promising intimation of hope in his speech, Obama said the following:
“We should pass a sentencing reform bill through Congress this year. We need to ask prosecutors to use their discretion to seek the best punishment, the one that’s going to be most effective, instead of just the longest punishment. We should invest in alternatives to prison, like drug courts and treatment and probation programs, which ultimately can save taxpayers thousands of dollars per defendant each year.”
However, with bipartisan rancor at historic levels, is such legislation realistic? Or do we need the president to pass an executive order to bypass our defunct Congress and comprehensively dismantle the prison industrial complex once and for all?
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Jake Anderson joined Anti-Media as an independent journalist in April of 2015. His topics of interest include social justice, science, corporatocracy, and dystopian science fiction. He currently resides in Escondido, California. Learn more about Anderson here!