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Obama to Graduates: You Can Change Incarceration Policies

Sentencing reform has strong support from the public, and a diverse group of conservatives, progressives, law enforcement leaders, economists, and more. It is time for Congress catch up, and take action that reflects the views of constituents.

  • Grainne Dunne
May 11, 2016

On Saturday, President Barack Obama delivered the 148th  commencement address  for Howard University, one of the nation’s largest, historically black universities. In his remarks to the class of 2016, Obama reflected on the progress that’s been made so far in his lifetime on everything from racial and gender equality, to poverty and crime. Despite these gains, he stressed there’s “miles left to travel,” particularly when it comes to new challenges to racial justice in America like mass incarceration. 

His words, while optimistic, were both an important warning to students of the dangers of complacency in the face of challenges such as over-incarceration and a reminder of their own power to impact change through the ballot box.  

“If you care about mass incarceration, let me ask you: How are you pressuring members of Congress to pass the criminal justice reform bill now pending before them? If you care about better policing, do you know who your district attorney is? Do you know who your state’s attorney general is? Do you know the difference? Do you know who appoints the police commissioner and who writes the police training manual? Find out who they are. … Hold them accountable.”

There is little disagreement that mass incarceration is a racial justice issue. Black men and women make up 13 percent of United States’ population, but represent more than one-third of the country’s prison population. Today, black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. And while disparities exist in all facets of our criminal justice system, they are perhaps most stark in federal drug enforcement. While studies show people of all races engage in illicit drug use at virtually identical rates, black people account for 53 percent of those in federal prison for a drug offense. 

And incarceration is not the only consequence of contact with our justice system. There’s an extensive list of collateral costs that continue to punish people long after they’ve completed their sentence, often relegating them to a permanent second-class status. These barriers often prevent people with past criminal convictions from getting a job, securing housing, getting into college, and voting. And they, too, also disproportionately impact people of color.

While the immense task of dismantling our vast system of correctional control is daunting, there are some indications of possible reform on the horizon. One — as the president mentioned – is a major criminal justice reform bill pending before Congress.  The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would reduce many current mandatory minimum sentences for low- level drug crimes. Some parts of the bill would be retroactive, allowing current prisoners to benefit from them.

What’s more, this sentencing reform measure has strong support from a diverse coalition of conservatives, progressives, law enforcement leaders, economists, faith groups, and business leaders. And, there is remarkable consensus from voters. A recent poll from Pew Charitable trust found that nearly 80 percent of voters support eliminating mandatory minimums for drug offenses. And, according to a poll from the U.S. Justice Action Network, more than 60 percent of voters across six battleground states believe there are too many nonviolent offenders in federal prison. Despite this, Senate Majority Mitch McConnell has declined to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote. 

In his speech to Howard University’s newest graduates, the president asserted that American voters have the power to demand needed change and should hold our elected leaders accountable if they fail to deliver. It is time now for Congress catch up to the public, and take action that reflects the views of constituents they represent. Much needed criminal justice reform has been put off long enough. It is time for voters to put their elected officials on notice and if they fail, to hold them accountable.