|'President Obama became the first U.S. President to visit a U.S. prison.'|
Gridlock and opposition in Congress forced Obama to resort to executive orders during his pronounced late-presidency focus on prisons, sentencing and policing – an ultimately limited course of action
Obama’s presidency has taken place in an era of unprecedented national attention on the inefficiencies and inequities of the US criminal justice system. From pop culture phenomena such as Orange is the New Black to political movements such as Black Lives Matter, issues largely ignored by the public for decades have moved dramatically to the fore, and support for reform has begun to engender rare bipartisan support.
On the surface, Obama’s legacy appears to reflect this shifting zeitgeist. He was the first sitting president to visit a federal corrections facility, the first president to oversee a sustained reduction in the incarceration rate in a half century, and has issued clemency to nearly 1,000 inmates over his time in office, more than his last three predecessors combined.
But even as the Obama administration has looked to address criminal justice policy at all levels, from policing and prosecution to sentencing, incarceration and re-entry, the US remains an extreme outlier among the world’s developed countries. On matters of police violence, incarceration and draconian punishment for nonviolent crimes, the country remains unmatched.
And now, as the nation prepares for President Donald Trump, who ran a campaign openly hostile to the prospect of progressive criminal justice reform, there’s ample reason to fear that whatever progress has been made could be lost in the blink of an eye.
For the most part, Trump’s plans for criminal justice remain opaque. He did not make the matter a major campaign issue, aside from making vague promises to be a “law and order candidate”, but has been critical of several of Obama’s initiatives, specifically his embrace of clemency for long-serving nonviolent drug offenders.
“We don’t know what it’s going to mean, but the likelihood is we’re in a much worse place,” said Phillip Goff, president and co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity.
Jessica Jackson-Sloan, the national director for #cut50 – an advocacy group which seeks to cut the US prison population by 50% over the next 10 years – said part of the impact Obama’s actions have is reminding people just how little power the president has to draw down mass incarceration.
“He can commute sentences but he cannot change the laws on the books,” Jackson-Sloan said. ”The president and the DoJ can do quite a bit, but Congress really holds the keys to this car.”
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Source: The Guardian, Jamiles Lartey, November 14, 2016