Just hours after announcing the historic nuclear deal with Iran on July 14th, President Obama moved to speak about a domestic issue that had been simmering on the back burner for years. He called for far-reaching criminal justice reforms focused on reducing sentences for non-violent offenders and eliminating racial inequities within the system.
The president’s ambitious proposal comes after years of growing momentum on both sides of the aisle to address the massive waste, discrimination, and ineffectuality within the criminal justice system. It arrives on the heels of several bills in the House and Senate that seek to address some of these problems. The move also seems to a be a tacit response to the police reform movement that has grown exponentially over the course of the past year following the high-profile death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in the summer 2014. This movement seeks to curb racist and often deadly police practices against African-Americans, made famous by the popular Twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. While the Obama administration has expressed interest in police reform in the past, the decision to pursue reforms that enjoy bipartisan support rather than the more polarizing police issue illustrates the limitations of presidential policy-making power, as well as a desire to avoid taking on drawn-out partisan battles in Congress.
Since mid-July, the president has taken several steps to underscore his commitment to criminal justice reform, including commuting the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders the day prior to his public announcement and becoming the first sitting president to visit a federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma. During his speech on July 14th, Obama advocated for the reduction or even outright abolition of mandatory minimum sentences, and was critical of solitary confinement, prison overcrowding, and the culture of tolerance for gang activity, rape, and sexual assault in prisons. He also discussed the need for better preventative and reentry programs for felons, calling on Congress to present him with a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill by the end of the year.
The president’s sweeping demands follow several bills that have sprung up in both the House and Senate, both of which have the potential to fundamentally alter the criminal justice landscape. The Senate is still negotiating the National Criminal Justice Commission of 2015 that would create the first commission on criminal justice since 1965, made up experts from a variety of fields. In the House, a bill called the SAFE Justice Act is in the works that would take several successful data-driven state policies and enact them at the federal level. Both of these bills are promising as they have garnered support from both parties, including conservative Republicans like Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina while also being championed as progressive.
These new efforts at criminal justice reform come at a time of widespread criticism of existing justice practices at both the federal and local levels, with the #BlackLivesMatter movement at the forefront. Since the start of protests in Ferguson last summer President Obama has tasked the Department of Justice (DOJ) with investigating potential civil rights violations committed by law enforcement, and created the Task Force for 21st Century Policing that put forth a final report with policy recommendations in May. While the report’s findings were met with a positive response from police reform groups like Communities United for Police Reform in New York City, the recommendations carry little weight, and the DOJ probe has yielded no results. Part of the reason for this is that the standard for prosecuting police officers for racism or abuse of power is very high at the federal level, and police departments are largely regulated by city and state governments.
Thus, Obama has been criticized by many on the Left for his lack of action in the face of mounting numbers of African-Americans being killed or abused by police, despite a realistically low chance that he could have much of a direct impact on local police practices. A dramatic overhaul of policing in America would become inevitably wrapped up in issues of states’ rights and racial politics, making such reforms difficult to pass in a heavily Republican Congress.
It is perhaps for this reason that Obama has chosen to pursue a broader agenda that attempts to alleviate problems that lie at the heart of police abuse of African-American communities, enjoy bipartisan support, and sit squarely within Obama’s field of jurisdiction. Despite not openly referencing the anti-police brutality movement, the President’s proposals are steeped in racial language, and focus much more on the social effects of such reforms than previous reforms have.
It is then no coincidence that Obama made the conscious decision to announce his proposals at a NAACP Conference in Philadelphia, where they were met with boisterous applause. It thus seems that the President had been carefully navigating the political landscape in order to effect change to the criminal justice system for a long time, without attempting to embroil his office in lengthy political battles, but rather pursuing progress wherever he felt he could.
By they time either of the two bills in Congress get passed or are consolidated into one piece of legislation, they will most likely have been watered down through compromises and back room deals, and will fall short of the sweeping changes Obama has been pushing. Nevertheless, a criminal justice bill would set a dramatic precedent for how future administrations will approach the issue, looking at socio-economic and societal effects rather than continuing the same old ‘tough on crime’ narrative that has been the go-to talking point for conservatives for decades. Hopefully, it will also set the groundwork for states to pursue more direct police reform locally, and allow movement at the national level to end the policy of mass incarceration that has plagued our justice system for the past fifty years.