Are You Paying Attention to President Obama's Intentions?
The historic election of President Barack Obama has sparked resurgent hope in a large majority of folks across our country, including tens of thousands of incarcerated people. Hope for the future, for early release, for second chances and going home.
Early in the 2007-08 campaign he expressed his list of intended reforms for criminal justice online and during public appearances. Internet users learned that as President he would create a Green Jobs Corp to help disadvantaged youth, invest in transitional jobs and create career pathway programs to help low-income Americans. And he would reduce crime recidivism by providing new ex-offender support programs, including a "prison-to-work incentive to reduce barriers to employment." Obama believes the "disparity between sentencing crack and powder-based cocaine is wrong and should be completely eliminated." (1)
In April 2007 Obama spoke publicly of being smart on crime, not just tough. He told his audience that cities with less violent crime have adopted a preventative approach. Forecasting a renewed climate of mutual aid and betterment, the President wants police to work cooperatively on crime problems with local churches, non-profits and other leadership groups in communities across the nation.
Obama believes that to reduce recidivism means to do more than lock up more youth, especially for nonviolent drug crimes. Although he's on record against ending prohibition by legalizing all drugs, he said in his April speech that "the worse thing we can do is lock them up for a long time, people without any education, functionally illiterate, they don't have any skills or training, they are now convicted felons, we release them and now they are 25 or 26 and they are out on the streets, can't be hired by anybody, what are they going to do? They are going to go back to dealing drugs." If elected, he would favor "diversion programs, drug courts, treatment for those who have substance abuse problems, treatment that encourages training and skills, literacy even while people are being punished for their drug crimes. The more that we take that kind of approach, the more effective we are at reducing recidivism rates."
President Obama doesn't seem proud that the US is world's leading jailer, nor pleased there's a racial bias in the arrest, conviction and sentencing for drug crimes especially. Expressing mild ambivalence, he told his April 2007 audience that if he's elected we'll "have a president and a justice department, a civil rights division that is willing to enforce the law equally. If we're going to have drug laws it shouldn't matter if you're dealing in public housing versus the suburb out of your mom's back yard."
In September 2007 Obama spoke with Howard University (DC) students, "Don't let anyone tell you that change is not possible. Don't let them tell you that standing out and speaking up about injustice is too risky. What's too risky is keeping quiet. What's too risky is looking the other way It's time to seek a new dawn of justice in America." (2)
"From the day I take office as President, America will have a Justice Department that is truly dedicated to justiceI will rid the department of ideologues and political cronies, and for the first time in eight years the civil rights division will actually be staffed with civil rights lawyers who prosecute civil rights violations, and employment discrimination and hate crimes."
"Those who came before us did not strike a blow against injustice only so that we would let injustice fester in our time. Thurgood Marshall did not argue Brown (v. Board of Educationed.) so that we could accept a country where too many African American men end up in prison because we'd rather spend more to jail a 25-year-old than to educate a 5-year-old. Dr. King did not take us to the mountaintop so that we would allow a terrible storm to ravage those who were stranded in the valley. He did not expect that it would take a breach in the levees to reveal a breach in our compassion; that it would take a hurricane to reveal the hungry God asked us to feed, the sick he asks us to care for, the least of these he asks us to treat as our own."
"There are moments when what's truly risky is not to act. What's truly risky is to let the same injustice remain year after year after year. What's truly risky is to walk away and pretend it never happened. What's truly risky is to accept things as they are, instead of working for what they could be." As to who's suffering, "Our (black) community has suffered more than anything from the slow, chronic tolerance of violence. Nonviolence was the soul of the civil rights movement. We have to do a better job of teaching our children that virtue."
Referring to aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Jena, Louisiana students' racial injustice struggle, Candidate Obama told Howard students that these major events "exposed glaring inequalities in our justice system that we have a system that locks away too many young first time nonviolent offenders for the better part of their lives; a decision that's not made by a judge in a courtroom but all too often by politicians in Washington and state capitals across the country."
Referring to his legislative successes in Illinois around death penalty injustice, "Folks told me that there was too much political risk involved, and it would come to haunt me later, when I ran for higher office. But I believed that it was too risky not to act. And after a while people with opposing views came together and started listening. And we ended up reforming that death penalty system, and we did the same (to pass) the law to expose racial profiling."
"As President of the United States I will also work every day to ensure that this country has a criminal justice system that inspires trust and confidence in every American regardless of age or race or background. There's no reason that every person accused of a crime shouldn't have a qualified public attorney to defend them. We'll recruit more public defenders to the profession by forgiving college and law school loans. I will be asking some of the brilliant young minds here at Howard to take advantage of that offer."
Then Obama informed his young audience, "When I am President I will no longer accept the false choice between being tough on crime and vigilant in our pursuit of justice. Dr. King said: 'It's not either/or, it's both/and.' Black folks care about stopping crime. We care about being tough on violence. But we can have a crime policy that's both tough and smart. If you're convicted of a crime involving drugs, of course you should be punished. But let's not make the punishment for crack cocaine that much more severe than the punishment for powder cocaine when the real difference is where the people are using them or who is using them. Republicans have said they think that's wrong, Democrats think that's wrong, and yet it's been approved by Republican and Democratic presidents because no one has been willing to brave the politics and make it right. But I will, when I am President of the United States of America."
Specifically, "I think its time we took a hard look at the wisdom of locking up some first time nonviolent drug users for decades. Someone once said, and I quote: "Minimum sentences for first-time users may not be the best way to occupy jail space, and/or heal people from their disease." You know who said that? That was George W. Bush -- six years ago. And I don't say this very often, but I agree with George W. Bush. The difference is that he hasn't done anything about it. When I am President of the United States, I will. We will review these sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive warehousing of nonviolent offenders. We will give first-time nonviolent drug offenders a chance to serve their sentence where appropriate, in the type of drug rehab programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior and reducing recidivism. So let's reform the system. Let's do what's smart. Let's do what's just."
But how to get needed reform. Cautioning his listeners about expecting too much from their President, "The truth is, though, one man cannot make a movement. No single law can erase the callousness of a prosecutor who bypasses justice in the pursuit of vengeance. No one leader, no matter how shrewd, or experienced, or inspirational, can prevent teenagers from killing other teenagers in the streets of our cities, or free our neighborhoods from the grip of homelessness, or make real the promise of opportunity and equality for every citizen."
"Only a country can do those things. Only this country can do those things. That's why if you give me the chance to serve this nation, the most important thing I will do as your President is to ask you to serve this country, too. The most important thing I'll do is to call on you every day to take a risk, and do your part to carry this movement forward. Against deep odds and great cynicism I will ask you to believe that we can right the wrong we see in America. I say this particularly to the young people who are listening today."
"It takes a movement to lift a nation. It will take a movement to go into our cities and say that it's not enough just to fix criminal justice (but) what we really need is to make sure our kids don't end up there in the first place."
With his integrity on the line, President Obama candidly challenges all of us to shoulder a great responsibility and do as 1930s President Roosevelt told reform activists then, "Make me do it."
(2) edited text transcribed from Internet video of Obama's Howard University (Wash DC) talk with students on September 29, 2007