How Prison Reform Became a Presidential Priority

How Prison Reform Became a Presidential Priority

How Prison Reform Became a Presidential Priority

Obama’s prison visit would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. But organizing and advocacy created a new consensus.


This week in Philadelphia President Obama made a bold statement to a packed auditorium of NAACP members, “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it.” Today, he becomes the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.

We should not forget how unlikely either the president’s statement or his prison visit would have been just a few years ago. President Obama’s rousing speech to the NAACP in 2009, a few months after the start of his presidency (and the start of my presidency of the NAACP), included just two fleeting references to criminal-justice reform.

At that same convention, the NAACP made it clear that we were going to double down on ending mass incarceration. It was not clear that the nation’s leaders shared our concern. What a difference a few years can make.

Since that time, the drumbeat for reform has grown louder and louder. Five years ago, Michelle Alexander released her sobering treatise The New Jim Crow. Four years ago the NAACP released a groundbreaking criminal-justice agenda endorsed by leaders on the left and right, including Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. In the past few legislative cycles, Texas passed dozens of progressive laws around sentencing, parole, and drug treatment, and shut down a prison for the first time in state history—and then shut down two more. Georgia, California, and other states followed suit.

Finally, the hangover from our nation’s retributionist bender from the ’80s and ’90s is wearing off. As our vision becomes clearer, we see that the gravity of the mistakes we made during that era is truly horrifying. A black man in America today is three times more likely to be incarcerated than a black man in South Africa at the height of apartheid, and a white man is three-fourths as likely. At the same time, almost every public university system has dramatically increased its tuition rates, with education left behind by ballooning prison budgets.

As the president of Penn State once told me, “It’s like Groundhog Day: every year I go to the state capital and ask them to stop sending so much money to the state pen, and starting sending a little more money to Penn State.”

There is now a new consensus, forged by the activist wing of both parties—by the NAACP and the Koch brothers, in the words of President Obama. The new consensus goes something like this: Criminal-justice reform is inevitable, and transformative national legislation is a matter of time.

This new consensus involves sending drug addicts to rehab instead of to prison. It involves ensuring that offenders who go into prison illiterate leave prison knowing how to read. It involves demanding that the Department of Corrections actually helps correct the paths of our neighbors who have lost their way.

If we are going to solve the problem of mass incarceration, we will need the courage of our conviction. We will need to address the system as a whole rather than working around the margins. We will need to talk about mass incarceration as a moral failing as well as an economic burden, and directly address the racial disparities in the system rather than treating them as a side effect. We will need to invest in more effective, trauma-informed resources for crime victims, and approach the most crime-ridden neighborhoods with humanity and understanding.

There is great reason to be optimistic. The president’s clarion call to the NAACP not only echoes the call made by the civil-rights movement longstanding; it echoes the calls made in recent years by Republican governors, local business leaders, and the clergy of virtually every faith in our nation.

Building a justice system that works for all Americans is one of the defining civil-rights issues of our time, and activists in both parties can take pride in leading our nation’s leaders to find common cause in reform.

The president, himself a former organizer, is fond of quoting President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous charge to the then-preeminent black labor and civil-rights organizer, A. Phillip Randolph: I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it.

This is what it looks like when organizers and leaders from both ends of the political spectrum unite to do just that.

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