Friday, July 17, 2015

POTUS Goes To Prison

No, not some Nixon-era headline.

Obama First Sitting President to Visit U.S. Prison:

EL RENO, Okla. — They opened the door to Cell 123, and President Obama stared inside. In the space of 9 feet by 10 feet, he saw three bunks, a toilet with no seat, a night table with books, a small sink, prison clothes on a hook, some metal cabinets and the life he might have had.

In becoming the first occupant of his high office to visit a federal correctional facility, Mr. Obama could not help reflecting on what might have been. After all, as a young man, he smoked marijuana and tried cocaine. But he did not end up with a prison term lasting decades like some of the men who have occupied Cell 123.

As it turns out, Mr. Obama noted, there is a fine line between president and prisoner. “There but for the grace of God,” he said somberly after his tour. “And that, I think, is something that we all have to think about.”
Frankly, as a pre-requisite to holding elected office, ANY elected office at ANY level of government (local, state or federal), politicians should be required to tour a correctional facility, write a paper about the experience, and pass a quiz before they can write one word of legislation related to crime and punishment. If that had been on the books 35 years ago, we would not have had an imprisonment binge in the 80's and 90's. 
In visiting the El Reno prison, Mr. Obama went where no president ever had before, both literally and perhaps even figuratively, hoping to build support for a bipartisan overhaul of America’s criminal justice system. While his predecessors worked to toughen life for criminals, Mr. Obama wants to make their conditions better.

What was once politically unthinkable has become a bipartisan venture. Mr. Obama is making common cause with Republicans and Democrats who have come to the conclusion that the United States has given excessive sentences to many nonviolent offenders at an enormous moral and financial cost. This week, Mr. Obama commuted the sentences of 46 such prisoners and gave a speech calling for legislation revamping sentencing rules by the end of the year.
He got a lot of mileage out of the commutations earlier in the week, but let's be realistic: 46 inmates out of 1.4 million in prison (+ 800,000 in jails = 2.2 million total) is not even statistically significant. Yes, it represents a step in the right direction for what is supposedly being attempted here (the reaction to his pardons by the get tough dopes was largely muted), but it's not even a proverbial drop in the bucket.

Still, Obama deserves credit not just for touring the place, but sitting down with a group of inmates and a group of staff to discuss their concerns.
The president was brought to Cell Block B, which had been emptied for the occasion, its usual occupants moved to other buildings. The only inmates Mr. Obama saw during his visit were six nonviolent drug offenders who were selected to have a 45-minute conversation with him at a round table. It was recorded for a Vice documentary on criminal justice to be shown on HBO in the fall.

The six seemed to make an impression. “When they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made,” Mr. Obama said afterward. “The difference is they did not have the kinds of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.”
He added that “we have a tendency sometimes to almost take for granted or think it’s normal” that so many young people have been locked up. “It’s not normal,” he said. “It’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people making mistakes.”

Advocates said no president had ever highlighted the conditions of prisoners so personally. “They’re out of sight and out of mind,” Cornell William Brooks, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said in an interview. “To have a president say by his actions, by his speech, by his example, ‘You’re in sight and in mind of the American public and of this democracy,’ it’s critically important.”
Of course, some are worried about what it all means.
Despite the growing consensus, others seem worried. “Victims’ rights must be at the core of all reforms, and the conversation needs to move beyond de-incarceration,” said Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. 

“Victims’ rights must be at the core of all reforms, and the conversation needs to move beyond de-incarceration,” Ms. Fernandez said.
Absolutely, but only in crimes where there are victims. The vast majority (2/3 of those behind bars in the U.S. today) are in for non-violent crimes, almost 40% of which are drug-related (use, possession, distribution) i.e. victimless.

Nonetheless, the spirit of bipartisanship would seem to indicate that at least some reform is possible given the "polarized" politics of the time. Even Bill Clinton, who along with Reagan imprisoned more people than any other president in history, is sounding contrite for "mistakes" made in the anti-crime efforts during his tenure (like he wasn't warned about what a colossal error it might turn into back then).

But let's hope they hurry. With some cities experiencing rising crime rates for the first time in decades (along with the requisite idiotic media coverage such as this...look at the headline "What's Sparking A Violent Crime Surge?"...answer: your ratings?), and mass shootings happening every other day, time is of the essence.

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