Evan Vucci / AP

President Obama's prison visit caps big week for justice reform

But to drastically cut the nation's prison population, reform must address violent offenders, experts say

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s tour of El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma on Thursday, the first such visit made to a prison by a sitting president, caps a momentous week for the criminal justice reform movement.

The administration on Monday announced that the White House was granting clemency to 46 non-violent drug offenders who had already served 10 years — part of a broader push to reform sentencing guidelines. In a speech to a gathering of the NAACP on Wednesday, Obama went further, highlighting the stark racial disparities in the criminal justice system and calling for a full-scale congressional overhaul that would address disproportionate sentencing for nonviolent offenders.

Perhaps most importantly, Congress appears ready to act. A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers is working on several pieces of legislation that would institute wide-ranging reforms, from encouraging the use of probation for non-violent offenders, giving judges more discretion in handing down sentences and prioritizing prison space for “career” criminals. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and an early skeptic of such reform, has said his committee is also close to announcing a comprehensive package.

The most optimistic supporters of reform are predicting that a legislative package may be signed into law by year’s end.

“We can’t close our eyes anymore,” Obama said Wednesday. “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.”

Reformers have welcomed the momentum on the issue, but some have also cautioned that the federal reforms being considered would only be the first step in addressing the vast scale of mass incarceration.

Approximately 2.2 million people are currently held behind bars in the United States, according to statistics from the Justice Department, with 700,000 detained in local jails, 1.3 million in state prison and only 215,000 locked up in the federal system — the relatively small population that congressional reforms would target.

And while about half of federal prisoners are serving sentences for drug crimes, the figure is only 16 percent for state prisons, according to figures compiled by the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group.

John Pfaff, a professor of criminal justice at Fordham University, said to truly make inroads in reducing the prison population in the United States, policymakers at the state and federal level would have to address what has thus far been a third rail in the criminal justice conversation: violent offenders.  

“The reforms being proposed — I think they’re all worthwhile and that’s definitely a good thing, but it’s not going to cause the magnitude of the drop in the prison population that people are hoping for, if the focus is on nonviolent drug offenses,” he said. “That’s mathematically impossible. They’re not going to do what people think they’re going to do.”

Pfaff noted that offenses classified as “violent” in the criminal code are not all as grisly and brutal as the popular perception. For example, some states classify committing a burglary, even when no one is home, as a violent offense. Many also charge those who have participated in a felony that culminates in a murder with “felony murder,” no matter the specific role of the offender. 

“Academics and policy reformers are more comfortable talking about drugs than violence,” Pfaff said.  

Van Jones, president and co-founder of Cut50, a group that wants to cut the prison population in half over the next 10 years, acknowledged that violent offenders would eventually have to be part of the equation.

“Not today, not this year, but this thing is moving in a direction and it’s moving toward more sanity more rationality, more fiscal prudence and toward better thinking,” he said. “It took a series of bills to create a system as stupid and brutal and destructive as this one. It will take a series of bills over the course of years to create a much better one.”

“You’re going to overhaul the whole thing to be focused on prevention and rehabilitation rather than adding damage to families,” Jones added. “When you shift that whole paradigm—how can every dollar spent and every hour served be used to make that person better and not bitter, then a whole bunch of sentencing regimes need to come down.”

Other advocates emphasized that addressing more serious offenses was part of parcel of crafting evidence-based public policy, and not just an issue of compassion.  

“I hope at the very least we don’t categorically exclude violent offenders from the conversation,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. “If we’re going to make short-term progress on low-level drug offenders, I would hope the kinds of question we ask about them — ‘Is prison the only solution? How much time in prison is appropriate? How much public safety are we producing? — are the same questions we should be asking for more serious offenders.” 

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