President Barack Obama has seized on the righteous issue of mass incarceration for the final lap of his presidency. This one has a broad ideological and bipartisan coalition behind it, with Republican senators, governors and funders (including the Koch brothers) linked with the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP.
But Obama is not going far enough.
Since the start of the war on drugs decades ago, the population in state and federal prisons has exploded by more than 500 percent. This is ruinously expensive and explicitly unfair. The lifetime likelihood for a white male to go to prison is 1 in 17; for black men it is 1 in 3. The U.S. rate of incarceration is six times greater than China’s and nearly 10 times greater than Germany’s.
Obama’s effort to swing criminal justice policy back to rationality includes a review of solitary confinement in federal prisons and extending voting rights to felons. Meeting with inmates and law enforcement officials during a historic visit to the Federal Correctional Institution El Reno outside Oklahoma City two weeks ago — the visit marked the first time a sitting president had visited a federal prison — Obama talked about how we all make mistakes. But men from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to pay a price.
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Obama has rightly focused on the legacy of the war on drugs. In a speech to the NAACP last week, shortly after commuting sentences of 46 drug offenders, 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. That’s disproportionate to the price that should be paid.”
His administration should go further. The U.S. Department of Justice could reform the outcomes it expects from the billions of dollars in grants it sends to states each year for law enforcement, focusing more on treatment and reduced recidivism than on arrests and drugs seized. It would send a powerful policy message to local and state law enforcement, and encourage innovative alternatives to the arrest-jail-release spin cycle — such as Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program.
And Obama should accept the request of some members of Congress and have his administration reclassify marijuana from the top tier of illegal drugs. Doing so would facilitate more state-level experiments with legalization, and it would be consistent with Obama’s stated belief that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol.