Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Crime and Punishment and Obama

New York Times
23 February 2014
Op-Ed by Bill Keller

I DOUBT any president has been as well equipped as Barack Obama to appreciate the vicious cycle of American crime and punishment. As a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s, he would have witnessed the way a system intended to protect the public siphoned off young black men, gave them an advanced education in brutality, and then returned them to the streets unqualified for — and too often, given the barriers to employment faced by those who have done time, disqualified from — anything but a life of more crime. He would have understood that the suffering of victims and the debasing of offenders were often two sides of the same coin...

In March I will give up the glorious platform of The Times to help launch something new: a nonprofit journalistic venture called The Marshall Project (after Thurgood Marshall, the great courtroom champion of civil rights) and devoted to the vast and urgent subject of our broken criminal justice system. It seems fitting that my parting column should address the question of how this president has lived up to those high expectations so far...

...The economics of imprisonment, the ebbing of crime rates, the horror stories of overcrowded penitentiaries and the persistent activism of reform advocates had begun to generate a public consensus that merely caging people is not a crime-fighting strategy. Fiscal conservatives alarmed at the high cost of incarceration, evangelicals shocked by the waste of lives, and libertarians who spotted another realm of government power abused have clambered onto what was once a liberal bandwagon. (How much those conservatives will be willing to invest in alternative ways of protecting the public — drug treatment, more intensive parole and probation programs, job training and so on — is another question.)

In his first term Obama did not make this a signature issue; he rarely mentioned the subject. But his proxy, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., was outspoken from the start. Six months into the first term, he was already at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York talking about the social costs of mass incarceration and pressing for policies that would divert low-level drug offenders to treatment and ease the re-entry of former prisoners into a productive life. In the last five years, Holder has become increasingly bold, and encountered little backlash. This month he exhorted states to repeal policies that deny felons the right to vote, policies that disenfranchise 5.8 million Americans, including nearly one in 13 African-American adults. He framed it not just as an act of compassion but as a way of re-engaging prodigal souls.
 
“By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes,” Holder said...
 
...In practice, the administration’s record has been more incremental than its rhetoric.
 
By the crudest metric, the population of our prisons, the Obama administration has been unimpressive. The famously shocking numbers of Americans behind bars (the U.S., with 5 percent of the world’s people, incarcerates nearly a quarter of all prisoners on earth) have declined three years in a row. However the overall downsizing is largely thanks to California and a handful of other states. In overstuffed federal prisons, the population continues to grow, fed in no small part by Obama’s crackdown on immigration violators.
 
Read more >> http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/24/opinion/keller-crime-and-punishment-and-obama.html?_r=0

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