Obama’s Prison Visit Is an Empty Gesture

Obama's pardon rate remains abysmal, and the modest reforms he proposed will do little to tackle the carceral crisis that has imprisoned 2.2 million people in the U.S.

Ten years ago, Barack Obama visited Detroit and delivered a speech to the city’s NAACP branch, which was celebrating its 50th annual “Fight for Freedom” dinner. He was introduced by the city’s then-popular Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. While Obama went on to become president, Kilpatrick’s career ended after he was convicted of multiple corruption charges. And in October 2013, the former mayor was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison.

On Thursday Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit an American prison — the same prison where Kilpatrick now sits. The highly scripted visit allowed Obama to meet with prison officials, with six non-violent drug offenders, and to tour a cell. In remarks afterwards, Obama repeated his call for reforms while stressing he had no tolerance for violent criminals.

Obama’s visit to the Federal Correctional Institution El Reno, 30 miles outside of Oklahoma City, comes after he commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders and delivered another speech to the NAACP lamenting the racial disparities within the American criminal justice system.

“In too many places,” Obama said Tuesday, “black boys and black men, Latino boys and Latino men, experience being treated differently under the law.” He added, “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off and we need to do something about it.”

Over the last fews years, a bipartisan consensus has emerged that intends to tackle criminal justice reform, a political reality that was unthinkable 20 years ago when both Democratic and Republican politicians tripped over each other flaunting their tough-on-crime bona fides.

Yet Obama — for all the recent talk concerning penal reform — has been slow to the cause. Yes, he did double his number of commutations this week, but, according to 538, his “pardon rate still remains the lowest of all recent presidents” at 3.3 percent. If Obama truly wanted to reduce the sentences of incarcerated people, he could do so with the stroke of a pen.

Further, while Obama called for reducing the length of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent street crimes and urged states to both restore voting rights for felons and reconsider solitary confinement conditions, there is little indication that any of his proposed reforms will come to fruition, or that he will even push for them.

There are also no plans for the Obama administration to introduce legislation to Congress. Instead, Obama appears to be waiting for Congress to make the first legislative move.

Moreover, the modest reforms Obama proposed will do little to aggressively tackle the carceral crisis that has imprisoned 2.2 million people in the U.S. — the highest rate among industrialized countries.

University of Pennsylvania professor Marie Gottschalk wrote about the shortsightedness of reforms like Obama’s in her recent book Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics. “But the limited sentencing reforms enacted so far,” Gottschalk wrote, “have been directed almost exclusively at the non, non, nons — that is, the nonserious, nonviolent, non-sex-related offenders.”

Opponents of the carceral state, like Gottschalk, argue that any serious attempt to dismantle it has to go beyond non-violent drug offenders like those whose sentences Obama commuted. Even if all of those people were released from prison, America’s incarceration rate would still be high. Instead, some violent offenders, those that spark the most outrage on television news, will also have to be released. The same is true for sex offenders who, over the last twenty years, have seen their rates of conviction and incarceration skyrocket. According to Caught, “convictions for sex offenses increased by 400 percent between 1993 and 2000.”  And between 2000 and 2010, “incarceration rates for sex offenses continued to climb steadily,” while dropping or stabilizing for robbery, assault and drug crimes, among others.

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