For all the contentious, divisive issues that have recently dominated national headlines, there is one policy issue that continues to receive broad, bipartisan support—the need for meaningful sentencing and corrections reforms in the United States. And with new efforts by President Obama to highlight the need for changes, the time may be right for a significant transformation in how we view prisons and the men and women inside them.
This week, President Obama took three very public steps to draw attention to the issues surrounding public corrections. On Monday, the White House announced the commutation of the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders. (Among those whose sentences were commuted was Katrina Smith, mother of Denver Bronco wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. Bekah Stratton’s article on Thomas and Smith is available here.) For his presidency, has commuted almost 90 sentences, and offered full pardons for another 64 prisoners.
On Tuesday, in an address to the annual convention of the NAACP, the president provided more details about the types of reforms he would like to see enacted. These proposed reforms included reducing prison overcrowding via sentencing alternatives to incarceration, eliminating mandatory minimums while increasing judicial discretion, reducing use of solitary confinement, eliminating prison rape, and enabling former prisoners the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families free from unnecessary hurdles that effectively extend the prisoner’s sentence far beyond the time they served behind bars. All of these proposals are matters which Prison Fellowship has supported through the work of our Justice Fellowship program.
Finally, on Thursday, President Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he visited the El Reno Federal Corrections Penitentiary in Oklahoma. While there, he reiterated his desire to find more effective and more economical ways to reduce crime and to rehabilitate criminals.
“We have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to both control crime and rehabilitate individuals,” President Obama said. “We have to reconsider whether 20 year, 30 year, life sentences for nonviolent crimes is the best way for us to solve these problems.”
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the president’s comments over the past week is the nonpartisan way in which it has been approached. President Obama was quick to credit conservative lawmakers like John Cornyn (R-TX) and Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul for their efforts in this regard.
There is a unique opportunity in the coming months to see real reform in the criminal justice system take place. But such change will not happen unless lawmakers are convinced that the proposed changes will be effective. Hopefully, policy makers from both sides of the aisle will see the long-term benefits of changing current practices, and will act decisively in a way that will make the system fairer, more humane, and more efficient.
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