15 Jul 2015

Obama’s clarion call for justice reform

“That’s not a justice system. It’s an injustice system”. In a sweeping call for reform – President Obama says too many Black Americans are locked up in jail.

Obama speaks to NAACP

Too many Americans, President Obama declared, have been locked up for too long: a whole generation of young black and Hispanic men have been failed. In a passionate address to the NAACP, the President called for wholesale reform to fix a “broken system” of criminal justice.

Many communities, he said, had been left devastated by the legacy of mass incarceration, under rules which remain “skewed by race and by wealth”. There were statistics, too, to back him up. Black and Hispanic Americans make up around 30% of the general population – but 60% of those detained in prison.

Black Americans are more likely to be stopped, questioned, arrested, and detained. There’s a huge backlog of requests for clemency by tens of thousands of people sentenced to disproportionally long terms for non violent drug crimes.

So from the President, a clarion call for change. Better conditions for prisoners – including a review of solitary confinement. Locking inmates up for 23 hours a day, he said, does not make us safer. Instead, he said it was more likely to increase alienation, hostility and violence.

There was more: a call for cultural change – no more treating prison rape as a joke. Help for former criminals to re-enter society. Allowing many of those who’ve served their sententences the right to vote – a move which could affect around 4 million people. And making it possible for some not to disclose their status as former offenders when they’re applying for jobs. “At its heart, America is a nation of second chances”.

At its heart, America is a nation of second chances
Barack Obama

The roots of this mass incarceration lie decades ago, during the mass drug crime wave of the 1980s and 90s. Penalties were harsh, especially for offences involving crack cocaine, which disproportionately affected those from poor or minority backgrounds. The US now imprisons a larger percentage of its population than China or Europe.

The huge financial cost, some $80bn a year, could be better spent on education, the President said, and reinvestment in underprivileged communities, to tackle the causes of crime at their roots. “Any system that allows us to turn a blind eye to hopelessness and despair – that’s not a justice system. It’s an injustice system.”

Race, fairness and the meaning of the American dream has been the zeitgeist of the Obama years. An attempt to repair the vast schism which runs through US society, a society still polarised by class and race. America’s first black President has not managed to mend that divide, but once again, he made it personal.

“My heart breaks when I see families who are impacted. I spend time with those families, and feel their grief. I see those young men on street corners, and eventually, in prisons. And I think to myself, they could be me.”

There was one key difference, Obama said, between him and them. “I had a more forgiving environment, so that when I slipped up, when I made a mistake, I had a second chance.”

There are leading Republicans willing to join his drive for reform. Calling for lighter sentences and more prisoners to be released is a risky move for most politicians, but in the twighlight of his second term, Obama has little to lose. The America of second chances could yet get a second chance.