You can read the full article, written by our very own executive director Dorsey Nunn, in the SF BayView here!
18 July 2015 – On Tuesday, July 14, one day after commuting the sentences of 46 people currently serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses in federal prisons, President Obama addressed the NAACP National Convention in Philadelphia. In his address, the president declared that our criminal justice system is “built on the legacy of slavery, segregation and other structural inequalities that [have] compounded over generations.” Our current system, the president said, is “not an accident.”
As part of his solution to begin to address fixes to our system, the president asked the country to invest in linking prisoners with prospective employers, to “Ban the Box” on job applications so that people have a decent shot at a job interview.
We applaud the president for supporting Ban the Box, a campaign initiated by All of Us or None, and are hopeful that this public message is a sign that the president will support his views with action. Since All of Us Or None launched the campaign to Ban the Box over a decade ago, over one third of the nation – 14 states and over 100 cities and counties – have passed fair chance hiring policies, intended to protect people with arrest and conviction records from discrimination on initial job applications.
We have steadily gained traction nationwide, and in May of this year, Congresswoman Barbara Lee sent a letter urging the president to adopt a federal fair chance hiring policy that would prohibit federal contractors from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal record history on initial applications. All of Us or None has called on the president to sign an executive order that would require all private contractors to similarly “ban the box.”
President Obama commuted sentences for 90 people – a fraction of the 2.3 million people behind bars in our country, and yet more than any other president since Lyndon Johnson. By issuing an executive order to Ban the Box, he would provide hundreds of thousands of people the “decent shot” he says they deserve. This would be an opportunity for the president to lead the country towards a more just criminal system.
Responding to the movement begun by the California prisoners’ hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013 to stop mass incarceration and longterm solitary confinement, President Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, where he met with a group of prisoners. Afterward, he asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch to “start a review of the overuse of solitary confinement across American prisons.” Accompanying the president is Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels (right). – Photo: NBC News
The president also commented on the use of solitary confinement in prisons across the country, and said that these practices are more likely to make inmates more hostile and violent, that this practice “is not going to make us safer, not stronger,” imploring us to remember that the vast majority of people who serve time in prison will be released. As he finished his remarks, the president called on the American tradition of remaking ourselves, the Christian traditions that “all of us need redemption,” and that “none of us is without sin” that “justice and redemption go hand in hand.”
We are heartened by the president’s message of justice for all, including for those who endure and are injured by solitary confinement – spending 23 hours in an 8-foot-by-10-foot cell every day across our country. Legal Services for Prisoners with Children has been litigating a suit against the state of California alleging the prolonged use of solitary confinement in Pelican Bay State Prison is a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
The next, crucial step President Obama must take to decrease the prison population is to commit his values to action by following the lead of human rights organizations across the globe and identifying solitary confinement as a form of torture, then prohibiting its use in prisons and jails in our country.
The president urged Congress to act, to get “smart on crime” by moving away from blanket reliance on mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses to investing in crime prevention tactics that target juveniles and adults. On this end, the president offered concrete solutions such as job readiness programs, as well as a more abstract plea for empathy – that all children should be seen as important by their parents, neighbors, law enforcement and country.
The first, crucial step the president must take to end mass incarceration is to himself embody this empathy and to rethink his statement that “there are a lot of folks who belong in prison” and that our neighborhoods are safer thanks to police officers who put “violent criminals” in jail. This is a radical suggestion for a country so torn apart by racism, when the vast majority of those folks “who belong in prison” – those children and adults the president initially urged us to love and to see as important – are African-American and Latino.
But we will not escape the shadow of mass incarceration until we remember, as a country, that the legacies of slavery, segregation and other structural inequalities are endured by all people – those who commit crimes, both serious and non-serious, and those who punish those crimes. Fixing a criminal justice system built on these legacies requires us to dismantle all of that system – not just the parts that seem most politically feasible at the moment.
President Obama’s words and actions are a promising start. Let us all continue to push him further.