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If You Blinked, You Missed When Obama Made Criminal Justice Reform History

There has never been a time when a president suggested at the State of the Union that we ought to incarcerate fewer people.

  • Inimai M. Chettiar
  • Abigail Finkelman
January 13, 2016

Cross-posted on The Guard­ian

Those who watched Pres­id­ent Obama’s State of the Union on Tues­day might have missed a moment of histor­ical import­ance in the first minute of his speech.

The pres­id­ent called on Congress to “work together this year on bipar­tisan prior­it­ies like crim­inal justice reform” – a refer­ence to the Senten­cing Reform and Correc­tions Act, which would reduce mandat­ory minimum sentences for some nonvi­ol­ent and drug crimes, provid­ing relief to tens of thou­sands of unne­ces­sar­ily incar­cer­ated people.

It was so noncon­tro­ver­sial, it merited barely 11 words, after which the pres­id­ent moved on.

But for decades in Amer­ican polit­ical life, the parties and their lead­ers competed on who could be more punit­ive and draconian on crim­inal senten­cing; for a pres­id­ent to stand before the Amer­ican people and call on Congress to pass legis­la­tion to reduce impris­on­ment is unpre­ced­en­ted.

To determ­ine just how unusual Obama’s call to action was, we need only to look at some of his prede­cessors.

In 1970, Richard Nixon proclaimed that the word “war” was more appro­pri­ate for crime than for poverty, disease, or hunger, help­ing coin the phrase war on crime. He noted that most Members of Congress “would not dare walk home at night.”

In 1989, George H. W. Bush advoc­ated for $1bn “to escal­ate the war against drugs. A war that must be waged on all fronts.” He asked Congress to fund “beefed up prosec­u­tion” and “enforce­ment of tougher sentences.”

And in 1994, Bill Clin­ton called for both parties to come together to pass the 1994 Crime Bill, which gave $9bn to states to increase prison popu­la­tions and insti­tuted federal “three-strikes-you’re-out” laws.

These tough-on-crime calls weren’t mere blood­lust or pander­ing: crime was dispro­por­tion­ately high at the time and ravaging urban neigh­bor­hoods.

But those responses to crime over­shot the mark and made the United States the largest incar­cer­ator in the world. With just 5% of the world’s popu­la­tion, we have 25% of its pris­on­ers. (Either Amer­ic­ans are a partic­u­larly dast­ardly group, or there are too many of us behind bars.)

It would have been even more power­ful on Tues­day if Pres­id­ent Obama had spent more time talk­ing about the need to reduce the number of people incar­cer­ated – or even just mentioned that crime today is at historic all-time lows.

The dawn­ing aware­ness that crime has dropped dramat­ic­ally is one of the most signi­fic­ant, if under-discussed, factors in the current move­ment to reduce mass incar­cer­a­tion – and it makes it more likely that Congress will act. Since 2008, crime and incar­cer­a­tion have both decreased, for the first time in 40 years. Crime in the United States hasn’t been this low since 1969 – when bell-bottoms were in, the Mets won the World Series and even the biggest tech­ies were tethered to walls when they talked on their phones.

Viol­ent crime dropped 20% during Obama’s tenure from 2009 to 2014. The aver­age person in a large urban area is safer walk­ing the streets today than they would have been at almost any time in the past 30 years. And while it is true that some cities have recently seen increases in their murder rates this year, the stat­ist­ics show that these increases are local­ized and not a harbinger of a nation­wide crime surge. In fact, crime over­all dropped 6% in 2015.

Stud­ies have conclus­ively shown that mass incar­cer­a­tion played a limited role in the crime drop: more police officers, smarter poli­cing and economic factors did. In response, states as dispar­ate as Texas, Geor­gia and New York have passed legis­la­tion to reduce crime and incar­cer­a­tion simul­tan­eously. Last fall, a prom­in­ent national group of 160 law enforce­ment lead­ers – police chiefs, sher­iffs, and district attor­neys – from all 50 states affirmed that they too believe that we can reduce crime and reduce impris­on­ment.

The polit­ical consensus that crim­inal justice reform is needed may be start­ing to strain at the seams, but so far it’s hold­ing: both parties have come to agree that it is time to end mass incar­cer­a­tion.

For a time, it looked as if a gener­a­tional split might bifurc­ate Congress; young Senat­ors Rand Paul of Kentucky and Cory Booker of New Jersey werepush­ing for reform, but their party bigwigs remained skep­tical. But more recently, Senate Judi­ciary Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley of Iowa and House SpeakerPaul Ryan of Wiscon­sin have spoken out to support reform.

The Senten­cing Reform and Correc­tions Act is also suppor­ted by the conser­vat­ive Koch broth­ers, the NAACP and law enforce­ment organ­iz­a­tions; you could hardly find a more diverse coali­tion. (Thebill may be one of the few things Congress gets done in 2016. )

But a new senten­cing bill can’t be the last word in the reform moment; it should merely begin to show that it is indeed possible for politi­cians to come together to achieve reform. There is more to be done: for instance, the current bill focuses on redu­cing the federal prison popu­la­tion, but 85% of inmates are housed in state-controlled pris­ons.

The federal govern­ment could make a large impact on state policy, by taking the$3.8 billion in federal grants that currently and all-but-auto­mat­ic­ally subsid­ize mass incar­cer­a­tion in the states – much of that because of the 1994 Crime Bill and similar efforts – and using those funds to encour­age states to reduce impris­on­ment while keep­ing down crime.

But moving beyond one bill and making a concer­ted effort to end mass incar­cer­a­tion may ulti­mately be a task for a new pres­id­ent.

(Photo: AP)