In one of his first major speeches on criminal justice, President Obama talked to the NAACP convention in Philadelphia yesterday about many of the injustices, particularly racial injustices, of the current system, says the Christian Science Monitor. He laid out proposals focused on the “community, courtroom, and cellblock.” Obama urged lowering, or eliminating entirely, mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes; giving judges more discretion around nonviolent crimes; pushing prosecutors to use their discretion to seek the best punishment rather than the longest punishment; and investing in alternatives to prison, including treatment programs.
None of the fixes Obama suggested is new, and some have already been enacted by states. What is perhaps new, a fact Obama highlighted, is the degree to which the issue is gaining momentum among leaders on both sides of the aisle. “Three years ago, the term 'mass incarceration' was controversial,” says Jeremy Haile of the Sentencing Project says. “Today, [Rep. James] Sensenbrenner (R-WI) used it as a statement of fact.” After years of calling for changes, activists are cautiously optimistic that a meaningful bill will be passed in Congress and that states will continue to make changes. The real questions, says Fordham University law Prof. John Pfaff, are whether reforms will continue even as the economy improves or if there's another spike in crime. The positive examples of states like Texas and California may help persuade states to cut incarceration rates even without economic pressures to cut costs, he says. He's less optimistic about what might happen if crime rises again. “We're in uncharted waters,” he says.