Remember when Barack Obama promised to reform our prison systems? Apparently, releasing prisoners was his idea of “prison reform”. Unfortunately, Obama turned his focus on racial discrimination in the prison system and got away from his original pledge to make prison reform a priority for all prisoners.

According to Sari Horwitz and Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post – Over the course of his presidency, Barack Obama became increasingly dedicated to unmasking racial discrimination in U.S. criminal justice policies.

Criminal justice was always a priority issue for Barack Obama.“Since my first campaign, I’ve talked about how, in too many cases, our criminal justice system ends up being a pipeline from underfunded, inadequate schools to overcrowded jails,” he declared in the summer of 2015.

But over the course of his presidency, he became something of a crusader, prodded in part by a growing national movement dedicated to unmasking the discrimination and injustice that so often color and guide the interactions between law enforcement officials and people of color.

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Over time, Obama became an increasingly forceful voice, pledging to address the epidemic of incarceration that disproportionately affects people of color, and speaking out against what he described as “a long history of inequity in the criminal justice system in America.” 

According to PBS, President Obama commuted the sentences of more federal prisoners than any other president and was on track to leave far fewer federal inmates in federal prison since the 1960s.

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President Trump has now taken on prison reform, and unlike his predecessor, he’s serious about prison reform for all prisoners and about giving them a second chance.

The White House announced Tuesday that it had sent Congress a framework for overhauling prison and criminal reentry in America, following up on a promise first issued by President Donald Trump in his State of the Union address late last month.

While stressing the importance of reducing crime and enhancing public safety, the White House’s framework is focused within those constraints on cutting recidivism and promoting better reentry. It called on Congress to reevaluate current reentry programs, implement evidence-based reentry programs, enhance risk assessment tools, expand access to prison work, and consider public-private partnerships in incarceration.

Such priorities highlight America’s elevated rates of recidivism. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68 percent of state offenders are rearrested within three years and 77 percent are rearrested within five years. Three hundred thousand inmates released each year will return to prison within three years.

Prison reform has been a focus of the White House since last December, when Trump held a roundtable, which included pro-reform voices and two state governors, to discuss reentry and reducing recidivism. It then earned a mention in the State of the Union, with Trump promising to “embark on reforming our prisons, to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance at life.”

Conspicuously absent from the White House’s actions is any move towards sentencing reform, which would affect the rates at which prisoners enter prison, rather than their experience when leaving it. A bill to implement both sentencing and prison reform recently cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, over the objections of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and five of the committee’s Republicans; it remains to be seen whether it will be allowed debate time on the floor of the Senate.

Although lacking a sentencing reform component, the White House’s framework nonetheless met with the approval of advocates of overhauling the criminal justice system. David Barnes, policy director of pro-reform advocacy organization Generation Opportunity, emphasized that the administration’s approach was, in his opinion, the right way forward on reform.

“The White House is taking a sensible approach to keeping our neighborhoods and communities safer while giving those who have served their time a second chance. Since the vast majority of inmates will eventually be released, it is in everyone’s best interest to ensure that young Americans are better off after leaving prison than they were when they got in. We are pleased with the White House’s leadership on this critical issue and look forward to working with this administration and Congress to make substantial reforms to our prison system,” Barnes said. – WFB


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