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Obama’s Criminal Justice Overhaul

It is not long now until Obama's presidency is over- will his criminal justice reforms be his lasting legacy?

Rhianna Patel

Naked Politics Blogger

Obama is the first sitting US President to visit a federal prison, signalling that his lame duck years are behind him as he attempts to overhaul the criminal justice system. Following this, he made a powerful speech in Philadelphia at the NAACP’s 106th National Convention where he discussed key issues that need reforming, reinforcing the idea that this is not an isolated issue.

The Numbers:

  • The USA is home to 5% of the world’s population but are 25% of the world’s prisoners
  • African Americans and Latinos make up 60% of the USA’s inmates, with 17.1% Hispanics and Latinos in the general population and 13.2% African Americans
  • The number of prisoners has quadrupled to 2.2 million since 1980
  • The amount the US government currently spends to keep people incarcerated is $80 billion which they could spend on:
    • Providing universal preschool
    • Doubling the salary of every high school teacher
    • Eliminating tuition at every Public college and university

The President emphasised that the criminal justice system “remains particularly skewed by race and wealth” and this has rippled onto the county’s communities. Many have seen the injustices within the system and the racial inequality of those incarcerated. Obama stated further that “African Americans are more likely to be arrested. They are more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime.” He also emphasised that this has had an undulating effect on the country and many young people are left without a parent. Another big issue that Obama discussed is that “In far too many cases the punishment doesn’t fit the crime”. After speaking to six inmates in an Oklahoma federal prison, many were non-violent drug offenders with long sentences which to many doesn’t make sense.

What is the current White House doing?

  • Fair Sentencing Act – after signing this Obama and his government have become proactive in dealing with the mandatory minimum sentences on crack cocaine
  • The ‘Smart on Crime’ initiative – where federal prosecutors are refocusing their efforts on the worst offenders and using mandatory minimum sentences 20% less often

What does Obama hope to do?

Obama begins his hope for the future with the community, his emphasis lying in the future of the children, hoping young people can push themselves to a brighter future. This begins in preschool and continues on to summer jobs for teenagers. More importantly there needs to be trust between law enforcement and the community, an issue that has become more prominent in recent months within the USA. With police brutality on young African Americans like Eric Garner and Michael Brown sparking riots across the country. However, Obama is hoping to keep the relationship a positive one and making policing more effective and unbiased.

Furthermore the progress will continue in the courtroom, accentuating the need of eliminating mandatory minimums especially for non-violent drug crimes. Many in Congress are starting to put together ideas and bills for the future for example The Smarter Sentencing Act. This would reduce the mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug crimes but increase sentences for any drug abuse linked to cases of sexual abuse or terrorism.

Finally, helping those already incarcerated from reoffending. By helping them get their lives together within prison before they are released could really help their futures. This includes making conditions better within the prisons and offering job training. Also reviewing the use of solitary confinement.

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Many question where he is going to get his support from as his presidency is coming to an end. But by searching for national consensus, it is clear that many Americans are looking towards a brighter future. Moreover this is an issue that both Republicans and Democrats can agree on. Bipartisanship in Congress is key for reforms like this and so far there has been huge support, with House Speaker John Boehner signalling a commitment. Moreover recent Democratic Presidential Candidate Martin O’Malley has given a clear detailed account of what he wants the future of Criminal Justice Reform to look like, including key issues like the nation’s approach to mental health and reforming the police. Overall the support for such a key topic is ever growing and for a reform like this to work Obama will need it. So remember:

“Justice is not only the absence of oppression, it is the presence of opportunity.”

 

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