As regular readers will know, I'm not always the biggest fan of our President and his policies. But when circumstances and wont make him so disposed, he is capable of making passionate, moving, and clear-headed interventions in debates that are often un-touched or toxic.
President Obama recently toured a prison in Oklahoma--incredibly, he is the first sitting President to tour a prison--where he offered remarks on the injustice and impracticality of the the policies of mass incarceration in the U.S. (from which the prison industry makes a tremendous amount of money).
He reminded the public that, "When [prisoners] describe their youth, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different from the mistakes I made, and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made. The difference is that they did not have the kind of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes".
At a time when systematic and un-punished police violence, indefensible economic inequality along racial lines, and a broken criminal justice system are becoming increasingly unavoidable issues, the President's call for attention to the way in which our prison and criminal justice system reflects our priorities and values is welcome.
The U.S. rate of incarceration is amongst the highest in the world, but focuses more on indiscriminate punishment--non-violent offenders are swept up by long prison sentences which leave them no opportunities for re-making their lives and impose a staggering burden on taxpayers--than on the rehabilitation programs that are notable features of other far more successful and less expensive criminal justice systems around the world.
Those caught up in our punitive criminal justice system are disproportionately black, Latino, and poor, a result of both skewed and often-racist law enforcement and an economic structure which leaves large-swathes of historically-marginalized communities with few opportunities and curtailed access to a shrinking public sector and the public goods provided therein.
There will be many who are content to recite homilies about the 'deserving' nature of those condemned by birth, circumstances, or petty offenses to spend a lifetime caught up in the U.S. prison system. But those interested in promoting justice, developing a sustainable criminal justice system, and in righting the wrongs of our society should take a close look at the President's words and think about how we can reform existing practice in a way that does justice, offers humanity, and attempts rehabilitation.