No More Incarceration Nation

On Thursday, President Obama will do something no sitting commander-in-chief has ever done when he tours El Reno, a federal prison in Oklahoma.

Fresh on the heels of a passionate speech to the NAACP convention and his decision to commute sentences for 46 non-violent drug offenders, I believe Obama can rally Democrats and Republicans to a greater understanding about the economic and psychological impacts that unfair mandatory minimum sentencing has on individuals, families, and devastated communities.

Statistics prove race has been a prevalent factor in the disparities for punishment of crack vs. powder cocaine violations. Twenty-eight grams of crack will net a five-year mandatory sentence compared to 500 grams of powder cocaine. The president’s call for legislation provides hope, not just to offenders with lengthy sentences, but also to forgotten families left behind when able-bodied men and women were snatched away.

According to The Sentencing Project, of the more than 2.2 million people behind bars, 60% are racial and ethnic minorities. Thousands are serving life without parole in federal facilities for non-violent offenses. Thousands more were handed unfair drug sentences before a 2010 law took effect to balance the cocaine disparity. The president cannot commute all these sentences, but he is willing to address problems associated with “a long history of inequity in the criminal justice system.”

Obama spoke bluntly about the awful conditions behind the walls of American prisons, which include violence, rapes and solitary confinement. “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off and we need to do something about it,” he said.

I thought of 22-year-old Kalief Browder, who spent three years at Rikers Island because he’d been falsely accused of stealing a backpack. Browder committed suicide after his release. I could not help but think of Albert Woodfox, the sick Angola inmate a judge has ordered released after 43 years in solitary confinement. Louisiana’s attorney general is fighting the order. But I am also thinking about a newly-released inmate who wrote me just last week seeking help.

James E. Smith is concerned that prisoners in work-release programs are being charged an exorbitant amount to participate in programs, “up to 65% of what they make.” He called the system a recipe for trouble because inmates believe they will have a little something to start over and care for their families, when in reality, most get a bus ticket and $20.

As a House committee considers proposed steps to help reduce mandatory drug sentencing, promote recidivism reduction programs and reentry job initiatives, I hope more governors follow the lead of the president and visit their own state prisons. Some ought to spend the night.

James ended his letter, “A person pays their debt to society and the deck is stacked against him. He is headed back to prison.”


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