President Obama Takes on Mass Incarceration



President Obama is using the tail end of his presidency to address a number of long-vexing problems. In recent years, concern over the rise of mass incarceration and its impact on poverty and standard of living has come into focus. On Tuesday, President Obama used a speech to the NAACP’s National Convention in Philadelphia as a backdrop for highlighting the unfairness in the criminal justice system.

President Obama said, “Mass incarceration makes our entire country worse off, and we need to do something about it.”

The numbers are daunting – 2.2 million prisoners in the US – a number that has quadrupled from only 500,000 in 1980. Twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners are in the U.S., even though we’re only home to five percent of the world’s population. Each year we spend $80 billion to keep people incarcerated in America.

Sixty percent of U.S. prisoners are either African-American or Latino. “About one in every 35 African American men, one in every 88 Latino men is serving time right now,” the President said. “Among white men, that number is one in 214.”

As the President noted, today’s criminal justice system “remains particularly skewed by race and by wealth,” and has adverse ripple effects on our country’s families and communities.

“A growing body of research shows that people of color are more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained. African Americans are more likely to be arrested. They are more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime. And one of the consequences of this is, around one million fathers are behind bars. Around one in nine African American kids has a parent in prison,” the President stated.

“What is that doing to our communities? What’s that doing to those children?” he asked. “Our nation is being robbed of men and women who could be workers and taxpayers, could be more actively involved in their children’s lives, could be role models, could be community leaders, and right now they’re locked up for a non-violent offense.”

The President noted, “We’re just at the beginning of this process, and we need to make sure that we stay with it.” He laid out three key areas of needed reform: the community, the courtroom, and the cell block.

“The best time to stop [crime] is before it even starts,” President Obama said, arguing the need to invest in America’s children. “If we make investments early in our children, we will reduce the need to incarcerate those kids.”

According to the White House, “One study shows that for every dollar that we invest in preschool, we save at least twice that over the long run in crime reduction. And summer jobs for teenagers are only a fraction of the cost of incarceration down the road.”

The President also moved to shorten the mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, or eliminate them entirely. Earlier in his presidency he signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which critics believed did not go far enough, but which attempted to reduce the 100-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and eliminated the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.

This week, he said, “For nonviolent drug crimes, we need to lower long mandatory minimum sentences — or get rid of them entirely. Give judges some discretion around nonviolent crimes so that, potentially, we can steer a young person who has made a mistake in a better direction.”

He added, “We should pass a sentencing reform bill through Congress this year. We need to ask prosecutors to use their discretion to seek the best punishment, the one that’s going to be most effective, instead of just the longest punishment. We should invest in alternatives to prison, like drug courts and treatment and probation programs — which ultimately can save taxpayers thousands of dollars per defendant each year.”

He put his money where his mouth was by cutting short the sentences of 46 people who have been serving time on nonviolent drug offenses in federal prison, including 14 who were serving life sentences.

In his letter he wrote, “The power to grant pardons and clemency is one of the most profound authorities granted to the President of the United States. It embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws…. I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity.”

He explained his reasoning, citing “the fact that we spend over 80 billion dollars a year in incarcerating people, oftentimes who have only been engaged in nonviolent drug offenses.” Saying that the 46 people being granted clemency “were not hardened criminals” when they were sentenced years ago, President Obama made clear that he believes that the American justice system has been too harsh.

“Their punishments didn’t fit the crime,” he said. “And if they’d been sentenced under today’s laws, nearly all of them would have already served their time.”

The President also addressed the issue of prisons. He said that, while imprisoned people have made mistakes, we have an obligation to increase the possibility that they can get their lives back on the right track. And part of that starts with fixing the conditions of our prisons, and offering more job training for inmates.

He said, “We want to be in a position in which if somebody in the midst of imprisonment recognizes the error of their ways, is in the process of reflecting about where they’ve been and where they should be going, we’ve got to make sure that they’re in a position to make the turn.”

President Obama argued that we shouldn’t tolerate conditions in our prisons that “have no place in any civilized country” — such as overcrowding, gang activity, or rape. The President also asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch to review the overuse of solitary confinement in our prisons, which is often more likely to make inmates more alienated, hostile and violent.

The President made history this week, becoming the first sitting president to visit a federal prison facility when he visited the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma.

The President noted that, but for the “grace of God,” he could have landed there.

The President has both publicly and privately acknowledged his indiscretions as a youth. President Obama said on Tuesday he was struck by the social inequities of our system that result in some misbehaving kids ending up behind bars instead of in front of a principal’s desk.

“When they describe their youth, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different from the mistakes I made, and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made,” President Obama said after talking to some inmates incarcerated for drug possession charges. “The difference is that they did not have the kind of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.”

But not everyone believes that the President has gone far enough. Michelle Alexander, the former ACLU leader and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, offered a different perspective of the President’s efforts in a Facebook post this week.

She stated:

History is being made this week. After decades of relentless “tough on crime” and “war on criminals” rhetoric from politicians, and after of millions of lives destroyed by our criminal injustice system, this week our current president, and a former one, announced that it was time to reverse course.

Days ago, President Obama gave a speech to the NAACP calling for major reform of our criminal injustice system.

Former President Clinton addressed the same crowd, offering an (utterly insufficient) apology for his role in birthing the system of mass incarceration. And today, President Obama is visiting a federal prison — treating those held in cages as human beings worthy of our collective concern — something no other president in history has ever done.

No one can deny the significance of these events. But I hope we do not lose sight of what is truly happening here. This is not the story of a heroic president demonstrating moral courage or the story of a bipartisan awakening to the dignity and value of poor people and people of color locked in cages.

No. This is not that story at all.

There was precisely zero political risk in what Obama and Clinton said to the NAACP this week. And Obama’s prison visit, while symbolically important, posed zero political risk. The reason why zero moral or political courage has been required for this week’s events is the real story here.

It’s a story of what happens when the perceived interests of white people of great privilege and power happen to align with the interests of poor people and people of color who are suddenly refusing to tolerate business as usual and who are building a bold and rebellious grassroots movement that threatens the status quo.

This is not to deny that people of all colors, faiths, and walks of life are waking up to the human rights nightmare that is occurring in our so-called “justice system.” And this is not an attack on Obama.

Obama is a brilliant politician. He is quite likely a good husband, father and friend. What he is not is a courageous leader on issues of race or criminal justice. At least not yet, and we are deep into his second term.

We are at a critical moment, but there is nothing inevitable about the change that must come. And the real heroes are those whose names we do not know, but who have been working tirelessly for this moment for many, many years.

So while we, quite rightly, ought to celebrate the milestones that have been reached this week, I hope that we will also take time to pause and remember those who have been left behind, including the tens of thousands of people who were denied clemency by President Obama this week. People like Sharanda Jones.

The story of Sharanda Jones in the Washington Post this week chronicles “From a first arrest to a life sentence,” arguing, “Clemency is the only way out for the thousands of nonviolent drug offenders serving life terms in federal prison.”

Ms. Jones in 1999 was sentenced to life in prison after her conviction on a single cocaine offense. “She was a first-time, nonviolent offender.”

President Obama put this issue back in the focus this week, but it remains clear that much work needs to be done to restore equity and justice in the system.

He said, “Justice is not only the absence of oppression, it is the presence of opportunity. Justice is giving every child a shot at a great education no matter what zip code they’re born into. Justice is giving everyone willing to work hard the chance at a good job with good wages, no matter what their name is, what their skin color is, where they live.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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17 thoughts on “President Obama Takes on Mass Incarceration”

  1. zaqzaq

    Obama states,

    “A growing body of research shows that people of color are more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained. African Americans are more likely to be arrested.”

    If African Americans are committing more crimes then shouldn’t they be more likely to end up in prison.  He seems to forget the harm that street sales were doing to neighborhoods.  Turf wars by criminal street gangs and the violence that comes with it.  The dealers are part of this structure.  Al Capone was eventually arrested for tax evasion, not a crime of violence.  How many Al Capones is Obama releasing into hour community.  I expect that at some point who these individuals are will be made public.  We will then learn about their crimes and be able to track future criminal behavior in recidivism rates.

    Obama states,

    “Justice is not only the absence of oppression, it is the presence of opportunity. Justice is giving every child a shot at a great education no matter what zip code they’re born into.”

    How many of the young people arrested and incarcerated today were yesterdays crack and meth babies.  Obama claims he wants to address the root problems of crime.  He could go even deeper and more courageously by calling for mandatory sterilization or temporary sterilization (through drugs) of mothers who give birth to crack, cocaine, meth or alcohol babies.  Reducing the number of fetal alcohol syndrome and meth babies will result in a dramatic reduction of crime in the future.  One commentator noted the lack of courage it took on Obama’s part.

    Now we can look at the Clinton brand which is to do whatever it takes to get elected and stay in power.  That means compromising your values for political power.  Bill’s apology for “birthing the system of mass incarceration” is one more example of the Clinton brand.  Hillary’s stand by her man moment alleging a vast right wing conspiracy concerning the allegations of Bill’s affair with Monica.  Now there is a right wing conspiracy over Hillary’s use of a personal server for official correspondence while Secretary of State.  She now claims the use of a personal server and account for official emails was both normal and legal when it was not.  Those who claim otherwise are now part of the conspiracy.

    What we really need are politicians who have values that they follow when setting public policy.  Clearly neither Obama nor the Clintons have or follow values in public policy.

  2. Barack Palin

    Obviously most of the non violent criminals being released or that Obama wants to shorten their sentences are drug dealers.  So he wants to set these people free which will in turn lead to more people using drugs as these criminals return to what they know how to do best.

    As far as blacks being targeted and that’s why they have a higher percentage in prison, how many mostly all white neighborhoods can you liberals give us examples of that have gangs and drug wars?

      1. Davis Progressive

        no in most cases they were people who had possession with intent to sell.o in most cases they were people who had possession with intent to sell    You are dealing with a few ounces. You have created this meant that all drug dealers are created equal and they’re not. These are basically glorified drug users been sentenced decades in prison for relatively small crimesowever, not all drug dealers are created equal. One case we are talking about fairly low level people who are mainly selling to support their habits and for the most part you are dealing with a few ounces. You have created this meant that all drug dealers are created equal and they’re not. These are basically glorified drug users been sentenced decades in prison for relatively small crimes

        1. Barack Palin

          Lawrence Elmo Scott of Lynchburg, Virginia, was convicted of selling crack cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school

          This is one of Obama’s chosen.  No problem, I’m sure he’s reformed himself.

        2. zaqzaq

          A few ounces of meth or cocaine seems like a lot of drugs.  Now we have the excuse that they are just dealing to support their drug habits.  I do not buy that argument.  That sounds like a defense attorney whine for sympathy and not reality.

  3. Frankly

    Within American culture there is a significant black subculture.  It is a unique thing without any significant ethnic cultural history of origin.  However, it is a largely negative and destructive culture as it tends to encourage violence, lawlessness and social irresponsibility.   And when you add this to the pervasive victim mentality projected by American liberals and the liberal media… blacks become trapped in this black subculture in a volatile stew of broken perspectives and views and bad behavior that leads to low socioeconomic circumstances.

    Seven thing are needed to bring this nation to civil rights 2.0 where blacks once and for all are finally integrated into the standard and average socioeconomic success.

    1. Eliminate any and all celebration or acceptance of “black culture”, and replace it with “American culture”, and honoring the heritage of African culture.  “Black culture” should not exist no more than white culture should exist.

    2. Reject liberal race ideology and race-based victim mentality as it is destructive to blacks and primarily a political tool as people made to feel victimized tend to vote Democrat.

    3. Reform economic, tax and regulatory policy to attract more capital to invest in economic activity that produces jobs.  Provide incentives to locate these jobs in low economic territory.

    4.  Reform entitlements to require people that can work to work.

    5.  Reduce drug possession sentencing, and invest in more treatment services.

    6. Invest in better border enforcement and deportation… increase the crime for illegally crossing the border into this country, and for being here without legal status.

    7. Completely reform the crappy school system to better prepare students for the next step in their path to becoming economically self-sufficient and successful.

    1. zaqzaq

      Regarding illegal immigration the deportation hearings should be expedited.  No lengthy continuances.  If they are here illegally have the hearing in a reasonable period of time and then make the decision.  Do not let them get settled here and create ties to this country.  That just complicates the deportation issues.

    2. Davis Progressive

      Frankly: I get that you’re trying to intervene before people get in trouble with the law. Whether I disagree work re-with your inclusions however the problem is once people get into the system it’s very difficult for them to get out of the system. That is where the notion of mass incarceration being the new Jim Crow comes into play.   And you end up putting people away four years for small quantities of crack or cocaine end up doing them a huge disservice. I’m not a big fan of Obama but I am glad that he’s finally starting to talk about and maybe even address some of these things

      1. Frankly

        See idea #5.

        But all of these ultimately contribute to fixing the problem of mass incarceration.

        I will never forget the comment of an employee of mine.  He was from Stockton and complained to me that half of his family was in jail or had a record from drug possession and sale.   I said “so you and I probably agree about legalization of drugs?”   He said “hell no… because then 50% of my family would be dead from drug overdose.”

        That is one thing missing from Obama and liberals’ fixation on incarceration from drug possession and being so damaging to black socioeconomic status.   While true, the consequence of legalization of drugs might be worse.  More crime for junkies to find a way to support their addictions and habits, and more death from overdose.

        Unless we address the root of the problem, we will just create new problems.

        1. Davis Progressive

          again, i agree on addressing the root of the problem.  my view is incarceration does nothing to stop drug abuse.  they may stop temporarily but the core problems remain.  the idea behind changes like prop 47 / ab 109 is to divert money to treatment.  but we’re probably a few years away from the resources we need.

        2. Tia Will


          hell no… because then 50% of my family would be dead from drug overdose.”

          I do not doubt your accounting of your employees impression of risk to his family members. I would like to point out however that incarceration as practiced today does not stop drug use. Our prisons are rife with drug use and with  enough money or influence or power incarcerated individuals can obtain virtually any drug they want. 

  4. Miwok

    While these ex-cons are researched, it will be interesting to hear their stories, and what beneficial citizens they will be after they have the opportunity to get out and re-join society as productive citizens.

    It will also be interesting to hear if they are: Rich families who “donated” to the Obama Foundation, the Clinton Foundation, or the  DNC?

    This may be the first president to visit a penitentiary, but was he visiting old friends? How was this list generated?

    Seems the trend is to let the criminals out, and argument seems to be: we spend so much keeping them in. What do regular people without Secret Service protection going to do, now that drug dealers are free to ply their trade? TAX THEM! Of course, the consumers, which never go to jail, right, are going to be in the same straits they are now. If the next Press Release coming from the White House is the cost saving of letting them out, then you will know?

    1. Davis Progressive

      “While these ex-cons are researched, it will be interesting to hear their stories, and what beneficial citizens they will be after they have the opportunity to get out and re-join society as productive citizens.”


      Is in that part of the problem. After decades in prison Do you expect people to be productive citizens expect people to be productive citizens

  5. Tia Will

    How many of the young people arrested and incarcerated today were yesterdays crack and meth babies”

    Good question. How many people are we willing to punish for the poor decision making of their parents which caused their decreased decision making capacity? Perhaps there would be some room for a compromise position in which a woman ( and soon a man, just as soon as the long acting, reversible highly effective contraceptive for men becomes available in about 5 years) convicted of personal drug use or selling only to support her own habit or children, could choose home monitoring with implantable contraception and a job or training program instead of jail as her path forward.

  6. tribeUSA

    I think Obama makes some good points with regard to finding alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses, particularly simple possession in small amounts consistent with for personal use (and perhaps even first-time possession of slightly larger amounts with intent to sell, i.e. small-time dealing, unless caught selling to children or selling near schools).

    I’m not sure of the point of bringing race into the discussion–perhaps he feels a need to placate some of the democratic base, to distract from the fact that he is doing little to stem the tide of immigrants (and supporting amnesty) who are competing with poor blacks for jobs and pushing down wages; and to distract from the fact that under the two terms of this Wall Street yes-man, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, at about the same rate as under BushCo.

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