Back on the Fourth of July, buried in the mumbo-jumbo of campaign rhetoric, was a statement by Democrat Martin O’Malley. The former Maryland governor said “patriotism” is rooted in helping others, and among those he singled out were people in prison.
I don’t ever recall a major party candidate in a U.S. presidential election making a plea on behalf of prison inmates. For that matter, I don’t ever recall a sitting president visiting a federal prison to lobby for improvements in America’s criminal justice system - because until July 16 it had never happened.
The tide of opinion is turning quickly concerning the gaping hole in America’s promise to treat citizens fairly. Our poorly run, overcrowded, shamefully inequitable incarceration system is all of a sudden under intense review.
At the El Reno prison in Oklahoma, the president stood outside a 9-by-10 cell that confines three men at a time. “These are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different from the mistakes I made,” he said, referring to his experiments with drugs while growing up in Hawaii. “The difference is, they did not have the kind of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.”
The president made clear that his focus is on nonviolent offenders, many serving terms imposed under rigid mandatory sentencing laws which have caused the nation’s prison population to explode. This has disproportionately affected young Hispanic and African-American men.
He noted that while the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 20 percent of the world’s prison inmates.
An influential group of Republicans, among them Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, has joined the ranks of those urging prison and judicial reform. Immediately after Obama’s Oklahoma trip, House Speaker John Boehner added his voice to those calling for new sentencing guidelines. With bipartisan support, relatively quick action seems possible.
Yet, it’s worth noting that only 15 percent of the nation’s inmates are held in federal facilities, so much of the needed reforms will have to occur at the state level - certain to be a slower process. By one estimate it could take a decade to restore America’s prison system to merely the level of adequacy of the 1950s.
At this stage, the national focus - likely to work its way into the 2016 presidential campaign - revolves around two primary issues. One is unreasonable sentencing, particularly for nonviolent crimes. The other concerns deplorable prison conditions, made worse in many regions by the bad practice of privatizing prisons.
If progress is made on those hot-button issues, it will be significant. But the problems go deeper. For example, juvenile prosecutions and incarcerations are seriously out of sync with what we know about child development and what we should know about the steps necessary to rehabilitate rather than simply incarcerate young offenders.
High recidivism rates across prison populations create a spiral of crime, unemployment and, in turn, more crime. Over reliance on solitary confinement and inadequate mental health programs contribute to the complex web of concerns.
Also, the continued existence of the death penalty, long after most of the civilized world has abandoned it, clouds our entire criminal justice system.
Some activists fear that the current flurry of interest is but a passing social and political fad. Meaningful reforms, they predict, will take decades.
“I signed a bill that made the problem worse.” So said Bill Clinton the other day about a mandatory sentencing measure he ushered into law in 1994. It’s taken over two decades to get that concession. How long will it take to actually correct the injustice?
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker