As the 2012 Presidential election approaches most issues remain the same and have not changed much since the 2008 election: economy, jobs, social politics, foreign diplomacy and war. Though given frequent lip service as America struggles through a rough economic outlook, one issue deserving more attention is the tremendous need to reform America’s criminal justice system. Our criminal justice system imprisons a larger proportion of its citizens than Russia.
Though only a fraction of the total population, African Americans and Latinos represent a majority of jailed citizens in America’s prison system. A statistic from the Sentencing Project predicts that 1 in 3 African American males will be behind bars at some point during life. Our national policies and priorities are partly to blame for the insane rate at which the U.S. incarcerates minorities. Sure there are a few racist cops and judges, but that does not boost extreme sentencing of minorities. Some believe the war on drugs and the laws of the failed policy are also culpable.
The Miami Herald reported,
“Consider increased penalties for drug offenses in school zones. Though not racially motivated, these laws disproportionately affect minorities, who more often live in densely populated urban areas with many nearby schools. In New Jersey, for example, 96 percent of people incarcerated under such laws in 2005 were African American or Latino. Judges didn’t necessarily want to sentence these defendants to more prison time than those convicted outside school zones, but under the law, they had to.”
Local governments and judicial systems have a limited reach. To reform the nation’s criminal justice system state legislatures and the federal government are required to change laws.
“The Obama administration’s deafness to the growing chorus of opposition to the senseless war on drugs has become so appalling that you almost start thinking Cornel West was right about Obama’s supposed lack of interest in black concerns,” said John McHorter of The Root.
Could President Obama be giving lip service to reforming America’s Criminal Justice system?
While courting the large bloc of African American voters in South Carolina in a 2008 debate, then candidate Obama stated,
“So for example, if we know that in our criminal justice system, African-Americans and whites, for the same crime, receive — are arrested at very different rates, are convicted at very different rates, receive very different sentences. That is something that we have to talk about. But that’s a substantive issue and it has to do with how do we pursue racial justice. If I am president, I will have a civil rights division that is working with local law enforcement so that they are enforcing laws fairly and justly.”
To his credit Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010. This act narrows the huge disparity in sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine possession. The White House hailed the passage of this bill as a bi-partisan effort which was “a good example of coming together and making progress on something that people had identified as a glaring blight on the law,” Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. However, when one looks at the staggering statistics it’s obvious that isn’t enough.
Conservatives are known for maintaining a tough stance on crime; many times insisting that tougher sentences deter crime, though studies have shown this is false.
However, some Republicans are on the side of criminal justice reform. Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich sent a letter to the NAACP lending his support for the civil rights organization’s plan which highlights “many innovative solutions that rightly emphasize rehabilitation, aim to reduce recidivism rates and fortify communities across the country that have been ravaged by mass incarceration.”
Gringrich stated “If our prison policies are failing half of the time, and we know that there are more humane alternatives — especially alternatives that do not involve spending billions more on more prisons — it is time to fundamentally rethink how we treat and rehabilitate our prisoners.”
Grover Norquist, the conservative anti-tax guru, is going against his party advocating for smart on crime policies. Norquist also endorsed the NAACP approach. “We’re keeping certain people in prison for how long — at $20,000 a year, $50,000 a year in California,” Norquist, who is president of Americans for Tax Reform. “Does that make sense? Do you really want taxpayers paying that much?”
America, the land of the free, locks up more of it’s citizens than any other nation in the world. Further, the cost of locking people up cripples state budgets as the nation tries to rebound economically. In 2010 the Unites States spent $68 Billion on corrections. Criminal justice reform has earned a place as a frontline issue in the coming presidential election