Criminal justice: Obama's big push to address race, quietly

There are few opportunities for President Obama to build a bipartisan-backed legacy. He's showing signs that he wants to leave a mark on criminal justice. 

Julio Cortez/AP
President Obama speaks about criminal justice reform during a visit to the Newark campus of Rutgers University Monday in New Jersey.

As President Obama enters the final year of his two terms in office, the nation’s first black president has been ramping up his efforts to leave a lasting mark on the country’s criminal justice system.

These efforts are in many ways an opportunity to tackle issues deeply intertwined with race. Such topics have often posed tricky problems for the president and his legacy, and he has sometimes been criticized for not doing more for the black community during his tenure.

Yet the Obama era may well mark a turning point in the ways the federal government approaches crime and policing, some scholars say. As with President Clinton and welfare reform, President Obama is taking an issue where states have already made significant headway and using his bully pulpit and executive powers to give it further momentum.

Even on Capitol Hill, policymakers in both parties have recognized that the billions spent during the decades-long war on drugs have created an unsustainably high prison population – the largest in the world – that is straining budgets.

This “has led to some of the bipartisanship that we’ve seen surrounding the issue of prison reform,” says Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas. “It’s framed as a budget issue, which it is, but there’s a very big racial subtext to all of that.”

In the past months, Mr. Obama has been continually promoting changes to the law enforcement system, calling for large scale reforms across the country, urging Congress to pass bipartisan legislation curbing harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and using executive orders to help those released from prison reintegrate back into society.

In July, Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, questioning the 20- and 30-year and even life sentences for nonviolent crimes. In mid-October, the president also highlighted the heroin epidemic in coal country in Charleston, W. Va., announcing federal and state initiatives that emphasized treatment rather than incarceration.

“Likely cognizant of the climate he confronts, Obama has indeed avoided direct discussions with race,” says Jamie Longazel, a sociologist at the University of Dayton in Ohio, via e-mail. “Yet on occasions such as this, he has taken advantage of opportunities to enact policy reforms that lean in the direction of racial justice.”

“Rather than a last-ditch effort to do something to preserve his legacy on racial issues,” Professor Longazel adds, “I see this as emblematic of Obama's broader political strategy: treading lightly and taking a long view to avoid awakening the harsh sentiments that characterize the current moment and are so commonly pointed in his direction.”

Yet the president always frames the issues of law enforcement and incarceration with a statement about the country’s problems with race. Last week, during a speech to the International Association of Chiefs of Police meeting in Chicago, Obama said, “For generations, we’ve had African-American and Latino communities who have pointed to racial disparities in the application of criminal justice, from arrest rates to sentencing to incarceration rates.”

“And all too often these concerns, no matter how well documented, have been brushed aside,” the president continued. “And we can’t have a situation in which a big chunk of the population feels like maybe the system isn’t working as well for them.”

The president's efforts come as the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement puts a spotlight on another area where race is clearly the subtext: policing. But while the issue is related, criminal justice reform goes well beyond policing tactics to examine some of the deeper causes and effects of having a disproportionate number of minority men in prison.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
President Obama speaks at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., in July.

The president often refers to “the pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails” – a phrase he repeated on Monday after he visited a halfway house in Newark, N.J. There are some 600,000 inmates released back into US society each year, he said on Monday, noting that 70 million Americans – or nearly one-third of the working age population – have some sort of criminal record .

“It’s bad for the communities that desperately need more role models who are gainfully employed,” Obama told an audience at Rutgers University Center for Law and Justice in Newark. “So we’ve got to make sure Americans who’ve paid their debt to society can earn their second chance.”

Starting this month, the Obama administration began releasing thousands of federal prisoners after it retroactively revised drug sentences last year. Many of these were sentenced to long terms after selling or possessing crack cocaine, a cheaper and mostly inner-city narcotic that carries a mandatory minimum sentence 15 times longer than powder cocaine, more commonly used by whites.  

The president also announced that the government personnel office will hold off asking about criminal histories until later in the hiring process, giving some ex-cons a chance to prove themselves.  

The next step is for the president to push Congress to act on many of the proposed sentencing reforms he’s calling for. In a Congress that often rejects the president’s proposals on arrival, there is some scope for agreement on the issue.

“Obama has nothing in his legacy that shouts bipartisan,” says Matt Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. “Criminal justice reform is probably his last real opportunity to add that to his record.”  

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