President Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal correctional facility this week.
Think about that for a moment.
President Obama deserves praise for stepping into uncharted territory. His predecessors avoided acknowledging the multitudes of non-violent drug criminals rotting away in prisons, even though it was the swipe of their pens and their enforcement of drug laws that locked the poor souls away.
In touring a prison and walking into 9’x10’ cells he saw what it is like to be on the inside of a cage. He received a small taste of the suffering that non-violent drug offenders are forced to endure.
The New York Times accounts that the President reflected how easily he could have ended up in one of those cells.
In becoming the first occupant of his high office to visit a federal correctional facility, Mr. Obama could not help reflecting on what might have been. After all, as a young man, he smoked marijuana and tried cocaine. But he did not end up with a prison term lasting decades like some of the men who have occupied Cell 123.
As it turns out, Mr. Obama noted, there is a fine line between president and prisoner. “There but for the grace of God,” he said somberly after his tour. “And that, I think, is something that we all have to think about.”
Thankfully it’s not only the President who is pushing for criminal justice reform. If you’ve been reading Brian McWilliams’ feature Rand Pauluses and Minuses or listening to the accompanying podcast, then you should be aware that Rand Paul has been leading the charge in the Senate for criminal justice reform.
Even Obama acknowledged, that Paul is key to the passage of this legislation.
“The good news is that this is one of those rare issues where we’ve got some Republican and Democratic interest as well as federal state and local interest in solving the problem,” Obama said Wednesday at a White House news conference.
He said he was “very appreciative” of the involvement of Paul, a Kentucky senator, among other lawmakers he named.
In fact, House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told The Hill that the time is right for Washington to pass criminal justice reform.
Very few things have such broad bipartisan support. We should move on this and put the reforms in place that are necessary. Everybody is aligned — the House, the Senate, the president. Let’s make it happen.
Wait a minute here. Something doesn’t quite seem right.
Whenever the President, the House, and the Senate all agree on legislation alarms should start going off. When presidential candidates like Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton (and Bill Clinton) join in the call for justice reform, then there can be no doubt that each individual is defining criminal justice reform to fit their message.
It’s likely that the criminal justice reform President Obama is pushing will shorten some sentences and prevent some non-violent drug “criminals” from having to spend time in jail. Perhaps the President will continue commuting sentences and add to the forty-six he commuted this week. But the President and Congress won’t go far enough.
In order to have true justice reform, the drug war needs to be stopped, not because it’s a failure, but because it is immoral. This is unlikely to occur.
To make those abused by the system whole, non-violent drug offenders should be compensated for the years of their lives robbed from them. This has zero chance of happening.
Those that have had their record stained with a felony for a drug crime, even if they served their time and are free, should have the felony stricken from the record and their rights should be restored as free men and women. I haven’t heard much discussion on this outside of California and even there Prop 47, which can remove a felony conviction if petitioned, has an expiration date.
We should celebrate that lawmakers are finally coming around to reforming the justice system, but we need to keep pushing until the phrase “non-violent drug conviction” is a term of the past. Call me a pessimist, but even with recent progress it feels like we are a long way from achieving that goal.
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