President Obama’s criminal justice reform initiatives are evidence based, and so is the fact that roles trump race in the courtroom.
President Barack Obama delivered a historic speech on criminal justice reform on Tuesday in Philadelphia, one that rivals, in terms of authenticity and candor, his 2008 speech on race, also delivered in Philadelphia, a city that overtime has visibly struggled with both.
Mr. Obama, who spoke for more than thirty minutes to a crowd of roughly 3,500, acknowledged the long history of inequality in the criminal justice system, America’s shameful and staggering imprisonment figures, the growing body of research that shows Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately targeted by police and, on a good note, that there’s bipartisan support in Washington to do something about it.
Numerous unlikely partnerships have sprouted up to push the issue of criminal justice reform, the President remarked. Nationally, Mr. Obama pointed to Mr. Van Jones and Mr. Newt Gingrich, and the NAACP the Koch Brothers.
But it should be noted that in Philadelphia, just a few months ago, my news and event company, Techbook Online, partnered with The Declaration, an alternative, online Philadelphia new source, to produce a mayoral forum on police and criminal justice reform.
And, as Mr. Obama highlighted, Republican Senators are joining with Democrats to talk about passing meaningful criminal justice reform legislation by the end of the year.
“The criminal justice system isn’t as fair as it should be,” said Mr. Obama.
Besides the evidence that supports the need for major reform, Mr. Obama also acknowledged the “momentum” built for reform, which, though it’s not always mentioned, is a product of relentless, and sometimes aggressive, agitation and guerrilla journalism by activists.
“Mr. Obama’s remarks were, in a large part, a reaction to what the folks on the street have been demanding,” said Mr. Kelvyn Anderson, Executive Director, Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission.
Mr. Juwan Z. Bennett, a criminal justice teaching assistant at Temple University, agrees with Mr. Anderson, and suggested that a year ago Mr. Obama’s honest thoughts on the issue might not have ever seen the light of day.
“Public will plays a large part in keeping issues at the table,” said Mr. Anderson, who, in fairness, pointed out that these conversations have been taking place, for a long time, in government halls.
Mr. Obama, not eligible for re-election, is proving, in this moment, that he’s willing to put action behind his sentiments. Tomorrow, Mr. Obama will become the first sitting U.S. President to visit a federal prison.
Mr. Bennett and I, during the weeks leading up to the mayoral forum branded #TransparencyNow, collaborated on an article that reasoned why the next mayor of Philadelphia should spend the night in jail. Though a sleep-over was the extreme side of things, our goal was to bring attention to the gross and unsafe conditions of state and city prisons and jails.
Mr. Obama during his remarks lifted up this issue, suggesting it was no laughing matter, and that we should not tolerate conditions in prisons that have no place in any civilized society.
Mr. Bennett, an award-winning criminologist and the only Black male enrolled in Temple University’s doctoral criminal justice program, is currently visiting 25 of the 26 prisons in Pennsylvania and have found the conditions to be, as Mr. Obama described, inhumane.
“We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries,” said Mr. Obama, adding that America’s incarceration rate is four time that of China’s.
The current prison population is nestled at 2.2 million, and the associated cost is $80 billion, according to the President.
For that price tag every American child can have access to universal pre-K, suggested Mr. Obama, who noted “if we make investments early in our children, we’ll reduce the need to incarcerate the kids.”
Mr. Obama’s speech, for the most part, centered on community, the courtroom and the cell-block, though he did briefly talk about how racial bias plays out in the classroom. The community, moreover community participation, said Mr. Bennett, is what will drive prevention, requiring us to think less about the courtroom and its racial makeup.
A recent study analyzed the paucity of America’s Black elected officials and found that in most states, they don’t exist. As expected, a debate ensured on whether Blacks can expect fair treatment under the law given this disparity.
Mr. Bennett said the debate is pointless, as the context of the criminal justice system, or non-system as he refers to it, is more about roles than race.
“The goal of the courtroom is more about reducing the dockets. So regardless of the race of the person hired to fill the role, the job description, in essence, requires little scrutiny of race and much scurrying of paperwork to decrease the workload.
Mr. Anderson labeled Mr. Bennett’s remarks as “absolutely correct,” and said that fact contributes to “our disappointment in Black politicians.”
But disappointment, at least for now, is not a word neither Mr. Bennett nor Mr. Anderson can assign to their President, as they are warmed by his candor and empowered by his actions thus far.
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Thanks for reading. Until next time, I’m Flood the Drummer® & I’m Drumming for JUSTICE!™
Photo: AP/Jacquelyn Martin/File