When Barack Obama was first elected, it did not seem likely that criminal justice reform would be a defining feature of his presidency. There was substantial disagreement within and between the parties over the proper path forward, and, in the context of the economic crisis and the healthcare debate, criminal justice reform was not high on Democratic or Republican agendas. All this has changed at an astonishing pace in the last few years, as a coalition of conservative evangelicals, budget-conscious libertarians, and civil-rights-conscious progressives have come together to champion an overhaul of the nation’s incarceration policies. Today, President Obama delivered a major address in Philadelphia calling for changes to the criminal justice system, and it looks like sentencing reform—once a secondary issue largely addressed at the state level, if at all—may actually turn out to be one of the few significant bipartisan accomplishments of the Obama era.
Obama’s speech—delivered to the NAACP convention a day after he commuted the sentences of 46 federal drug offenders, and two days before he is set to become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison—is part of a reinvigorated Administration campaign to give legs to reform proposals currently being considered in Congress. He proposed a wide range of changes to the criminal justice system, from softening policing practices in high-crime areas, to allowing ex-felons to vote, to cracking down on prison rape, to expanding publicly funded pre-kindergarten education. Some of the proposals are unlikely to go anywhere, but the centerpiece of the speech—sentencing reform for nonviolent offenders—looks like its time has come, and for good reason. Drugs are a major cause of social decay, and we should continue to penalize offenders—but mass incarceration as currently practiced is even more socially disruptive.
As we’ve written, efforts to cut down on prison terms for nonviolent offenders are already underway, thanks in large part to Republicans. Deep-red Utah is a national model for sentencing reform, as is Chris Christie’s New Jersey. President Obama was wise to emphasize themes that appeal to religious conservatives, like redemption and forgiveness, and themes that appeal to traditional fiscal conservatives, like inefficient government spending, in his address—in addition to the more commonly aired arguments about racial disparities that appeal to his base. It seems increasingly likely, as Obama’s second term comes to a close, that comprehensive sentencing reform could make it through Congress. This would be significant not only because it would begin to put our criminal justice system back on track, but because it would rekindle the hope that bipartisan cooperation is still possible in Washington.