Obama proves smart on crime is also smart politics

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Any reasonable American should applaud President Obama’s decision to commute the sentences of another 102 men and women serving unconscionably long sentences in the nation’s federal prisons.

This brings the total of individuals commuted on his watch to 774, an unprecedented act of executive fairness and compassion. It is also a reflection of the American public’s growing rejection of the disproportionate and discriminatory sentencing policies and practices that led to mass incarceration and America’s outlier status as the world’s biggest jailer.

President Obama’s approval ratings are the highest they’ve been in his second term. Evidently, being “smart on crime” is no longer the act of political suicide it once was.

Hopefully our next President will take note and push the envelope further on sentencing reform.

Executive clemency must continue to play its traditional role of alleviating individual cases of human suffering by serving as a check on overly punitive criminal sanctions imposed by legislatures and judges.

But acts of clemency alone, even if carried out generously by the president and every governor in the country, will not be enough to reverse our spiraling rate of incarceration.

Our country imprisons 737 out of every 100,000 people. Comparisons with other industrialized countries reveal the magnitude of our problem: the rates for France, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom per 100,000 are 103, 78, 53 and 146, respectively. Much more will be required to bring the U.S. into line with the other democracies of the world.

As former Atty. Gen. Eric Holder has said, too many people are locked up for too long in this country.

That includes not only those convicted of drug offenses, but those convicted of crimes considered to be more serious. The only way to bring a halt to mass incarceration is to be bold, and first bold step must be to reduce the insanely long prison sentences we imposed at the federal and state levels for serious crimes.

JustLeadershipUSA, the organization I founded in 2014, is committed to cutting the number of people under correctional supervision in half by 2030. We agree that people who commit serious or violent crimes should be held accountable. But according to many studies over the years, including one released by the National Research Council in 2014, “the evidence base demonstrates that lengthy prison sentences are ineffective as a crime control measure.” Putting someone away for 25 or 30 years might satisfy a thirst for retribution, but it is a waste of human and criminal justice resources. Shorter sentences are more effective and do less damage. And that is true whether the person is convicted of a non-violent drug crime or something more serious.

So far, most of the sentencing reforms introduced at both the federal and state levels have targeted people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. This is a good thing, but it is not enough. To turn the mass incarceration ship around, we have to take a hard look at the sentences we mete out to people who are convicted of more serious crimes. In the movement of formerly incarcerated people, we say we should not be defined by the worst mistake we ever made. I have come to know hundreds of men and women who have been through the prison experience who are doing amazing things: starting businesses and not-for-profit organizations, earning advanced degrees, giving back to their communities in myriad ways. They are not the exception; they would be the rule if our prisons were not factories of despair.

We can do so much better.

The good news is that there is growing evidence that the American public has had enough of the senseless, expensive and wasteful corrections policies of the past. Sociologists who study American attitudes towards crime and criminal justice point to an evolving paradigm shift as the public turns away from toughness and toward more compassionate – and effective – strategies. According to a survey of likely voters in the 2016 election conducted for the ACLU, 69 percent thought it was important for the U.S. to reduce its prison population. Today, Americans strongly support prevention, rehabilitation and reintegration as corrections goals. That same survey presented respondents with two statements: (1) “People who have committed serious crimes can turn their lives around and move away from a life of crime with the right kind of help” (2) “People who have committee serious crimes are unlikely to change and will almost always be a danger to society.” The first statement was preferred by a two- to-one margin, 59 percent to 31 percent.

Now is the time for our political leaders to lead. Americans are ready to begin to reimagine criminal justice and build a system that is worthy of our most basic values: justice, equality, redemption, and compassion.

Martin is the Founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization dedicated to cutting the US correctional population in half by 2030. JLUSA empowers people most affected by incarceration to drive policy reform. Glenn is a national leader and criminal justice reform advocate who spent six years in New York State prisons. 


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.





Tags Clemency Criminal justice reform Eric Holder President Barack Obama Prison reform
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