President Obama Addresses Mass Incarceration

Today, President Obama became the first sitting president to tour a federal prison when he went to El Reno federal penitentiary in Oklahoma. This visit comes two days after the president spoke about criminal justice reform to the NAACP, where he focused his remarks on reducing the sentences for non-violent drug offenders. Commendably, Obama also talked about the living conditions of the incarcerated:

“[W]e should not tolerate conditions in prison that have no place in any civilized country. We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison. We should not be tolerating gang activity in prison. We should not be tolerating rape in prison. And we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture. That’s no joke. These things are unacceptable.”

Indeed, the horrific stories that come out of America’s jail and prison systems are repugnant to any sense of fairness and justice. For that and many other reasons, the president’s recent actions on criminal justice are to be lauded, but also critically examined.

Drug offenders make up a significant portion of the federal prison population, but mass incarceration reduction requires reforms beyond the federal level. Most of the people incarcerated in the United States are in local jails and state prisons for violating municipal and state laws, not federal ones. Moreover, as my colleague Adam Bates wrote this week, the president hasn’t done as much as he could to reduce the federal prison population, even in this limited realm where he has sweeping constitutional authority to do so.

Obama said, “If you’re a low-level drug dealer… 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.”

The underlying problem with Obama’s approach is the continued reliance on the criminal justice system to be the primary tool for handling our nation’s drug habit. In a society that wants to discourage illicit drug use and sale, it’s not at all clear that throwing a low-level dealer in a prison cell for any amount of time, let alone 20-years-to-life, makes the dealer a better citizen or makes society safer. If incarceration does neither of these, and at such high fiscal cost, perhaps non-criminal alternatives should be considered.

The president’s proposed solutions—increased use of drug courts, treatment, and probation programs—are triggered upon contact with law enforcement and presented only as an alternative to criminal punishment. As I’ve written before, due to collateral consequences, that contact with the justice system can make people less employable and thus further marginalizes individuals from productive society. This contributes to cycles of poverty and increases the likelihood of more negative outcomes in the future, even if the individual doesn’t spend any time in jail.

Again, the president is to be commended for his attention to criminal justice reform and, in particular, his speech that humanized the plight of the currently incarcerated. But the nation needs a much larger rethink about what the criminal justice system should–and should not–do.