Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Obama's Post-Punitivism

President Obama's speech yesterday at the NAACP was a dream come true for American prison reformers, who have waited for decades to hear a U.S. president retreat from the punitive proclamations we have gotten so used to hearing.

I highly recommend listening to the speech in its entirety, but wanted to point out a few highlights:

1. In the spirit of the events of the last few months, Obama links the NAACP's activism in the area of criminal justice reform and poverty to their historical standing up to lynching and voting restrictions.

2. "For the first time", said the President, "the crime rate and incarceration rate both went down at the same time." This is the first time a U.S. president is acknowledging low crime rates.

3. "Crime is like an epidemic; the best time to stop it is before it starts. . . if we make investments early in our children we will reduce the need to incarcerate those kids." Obama references investing in early childhood and in summer jobs, mentioning that these will "save the taxpayers money, if we are consistent about it." These statements are reminiscent of President Ford's statements on crime (for more on this, see Cheap on Crime.)

4. Obama states an unwavering commitment to enfranchising felons: "If folks have served their time, and they’ve re-entered society, they should be able to vote.”

5. As befitting the setting for the speech, Obama spends a great deal of time "un-othering" crime, by speaking about how "other people's kids" should be treated like "our kids", speaking directly about the urgent need to restore trust between the police and the communities it serves.

6. Obama discusses sentencing reform and urges a sentencing reform bill that should be "passed through Congress this year", which will restore judicial discretion and invest in diversion programs, which "can save taxpayers thousands of dollars per defendants each year."

(read more about the speech on Slate.)

Some of this is right out of the Cheap on Crime playbook: diversion, nonpunitivism, and rehabilitation are cheaper, make sense in the face of declining crime rates, and should therefore be a bipartisan concent. But there is also a concept of dignity as a communitarian value that is being advanced here. Echoing sentiments that remind me of his days as a community organizer, Obama expect solidarity from his constituents, and he expects them to feel responsible for even the weaker links in the American social chain. Toward the end of his second term, Obama wants to galvanize his supporters to fix some of the things that are wrong in the criminal justice system.

It bears to mention that Obama's criminal justice mandate extends only to the federal system, which houses a small minority of the inmates in the United States. But even so, changes to the federal sentencing laws may become an important influence on state legislation and, perhaps, also on federal judicial review of state practices. It is also worth mentioning that most presidential candidates for the 2016 elections--from Bernie Sanders to Ted Cruz--are not opposed to the ideas that Obama articulates in this speech; notably, Bill Clinton expressed enthusiasm and relief for his wife's platform of reversing the punitive excesses of his own presidency. In short, being panicky and punitive is passé, and being fiscally conscious and community-oriented is "in".

How much of this will translate to real-life policies remains to be seen, but it is encouraging to think that Obama still has a year and a half left to wrangle Congressional Republicans on criminal justice. And he's dealing with less opposition from the Right than he would have in, say, 2006.

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