Obama Finally Acknowledges Mass Incarceration But Proposes Reforms That Leave Failed ‘War on Drugs’ Intact

Obama at NAACP 106th Annual Convention

For the first time in President Barack Obama’s administration, he used the phrase “mass incarceration” in a speech and appropriately called attention to the disproportionate impact incarceration has on black and Latinos in the United States.

The president also proposed several policy solutions that could potentially diminish the level of widespread injustice millions, especially nonviolent drug users, have endured. However, Obama declined to call for an end to the “War on Drugs” and proposed solutions would leave most of this destructive and failed strategy intact.

Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it,” Obama declared during remarks at the NAACP’s 106th Annual Convention in Philadelphia. 

Obama highlighted statistics that were probably all too familiar to those who have read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

…The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Think about that. Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s. We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined. And it hasn’t always been the case — this huge explosion in incarceration rates. In 1980, there were 500,000 people behind bars in America — half a million people in 1980. I was in college in 1980. Many of you were not born in 1980 — that’s okay. (Laughter.) I remember 1980 — 500,000. Today there are 2.2 million. It has quadrupled since 1980. Our prison population has doubled in the last two decades alone…

Those are stunning statistics the country should not ignore. It is hugely important that a US president finally talked about this issue openly.

Obama also said, “In recent years the eyes of more Americans have been opened to this truth. Partly because of cameras, partly because of tragedy, partly because the statistics cannot be ignored, we can’t close our eyes anymore. And the good news — and this is truly good news — is that good people of all political persuasions are starting to think we need to do something about this.”

There has been a lot of critical activism on the issue of mass incarceration in the past five to six years. Individuals and organizations engaged in that struggle, coupled with the Black Lives Matter movement of the past year, have forced those in power to confront policies that dehumanize and devalue black lives. As Occupy changed the framework of discussion about economic inequality, Black Lives Matter created a space for Obama to talk about a set of issues too often labeled as Black issues and ignored by white America.

“Over the last few decades, we’ve also locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before. And that is the real reason our prison population is so high,” Obama added. “In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime. If you’re a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society. You have to be held accountable and make amends. But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence. That’s disproportionate to the price that should be paid.”

Obama had put out a “drug control strategy” that aimed to provide treatment for nonviolent drug users instead of simply putting them in jail. But never had he presented all the statistics showing the human and economic cost and connected how the government treats nonviolent drug users to mass incarceration.

Ahead of a planned visit to a federal prison, Obama stated, “We should not tolerate conditions in prison that have no place in any civilized country. We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison. We should not be tolerating gang activity in prison. We should not be tolerating rape in prison. And we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture. That’s no joke. These things are unacceptable.”

The president even highlighted his own Justice Department, noting that the Department now spends one-third of its budget on incarceration. (more…)