President Obama Explains Why Our Criminal Justice System Is 'Un-American'

by John Haltiwanger
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On Friday, September 18, a diverse group of activists, celebrities and policymakers, among others, gathered at the White House to talk about criminal justice reform.

The discussion took place before an exclusive screening of the HBO Vice documentary, "Fixing the System," which airs on September 27 and focuses on the sociological impact of mass incarceration. It features footage of President Obama's recent visit to El Reno federal penitentiary in Oklahoma, which marked the first time in US history a president has visited a federal prison.

Before the screening, the president took a few moments to address the experience, getting decidedly personal at times.

I was fortunate to attend the event and was particularly taken by the president's candor regarding his own past in relation to the issue of mass incarceration.

He stated:

I met with a group of prisoners... and I said at the time... that they weren't so different from me. I made mistakes when I was young. I didn't always follow a straight path. The primary difference between me and them was I had more of a cushion. I had second chances. In some cases, I had resources or I was in an environment in which when I made a mistake as a teen, that I could recover from it. And these young people didn't have any margin for error. And that notion that as a consequence of youthful mistakes they could end up in a lifelong cycle of crime, where the prospect of them being able to recover and reenter society with gainful employment and the ability to be part of their children's lives and to be citizens appear remote... there's something un-American about that. This is a country that believes in second chances. And right now we've got millions of people who aren't getting it.

It was refreshing to hear a politician own up to his youthful indiscretions while acknowledging his privileges.

More importantly, the president set a strong example for the public by exhibiting empathy for people who've been incarcerated in a country where being an ex-offender carries an unrelenting stigma. He revealed while many of us make mistakes, sometimes criminal in nature, our backgrounds (race, socioeconomic status, etc.) frequently shield us from punishment.

The president's statements also highlighted the self-perpetuating and broken nature of America's criminal justice system. It's not designed to rehabilitate inmates, but to subjugate them to a lifetime of judgment and failure.

Even after being released from prison, they're still imprisoned by the label of "ex-offender." More often than not, they can't find jobs, can't provide for their families and, in desperation, fall back into lives of crime only to end up in prison again. As the president revealed, this is a large part of the reason they ended up in prison in the first place: a lack of opportunity. It's a vicious cycle.

Recidivism rates are astronomical. A study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, for example, tracked 405,000 recently released prisoners across 30 states in 2005. Within three years, 68 percent of these individuals were back in prison.

The US purports itself to be "the land of opportunity." When that opportunity is continuously denied to people, often with immense potential, simply because of past mistakes, this country fails to adhere to its own visions and ideals.

Indeed, as the president stated, it's "un-American" we don't offer more second chances to those who've spent time in prison. And it's a large part of why the United States is a world leader in incarceration.

With just 5 percent of the global population, America possesses 25 percent of all the world's prisoners.

Moreover, far too many are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes (nearly three-fourths of the total US prison population).

There are people serving life sentences without parole for first-time nonviolent drug offenses, which is arguably equivalent to receiving the death penalty -- a life spent in a cage is no life at all. This does not make sense, but there are thousands of inmates facing such circumstances.

Additionally, as President Obama highlighted on Friday, the US spends $80 billion per year on preserving this regressive system.

The US criminal justice system is unsustainable, destroying lives and communities across generations.

Not to mention, it disproportionately affects minorities, prolonging the already grim and shameful legacy of racial discrimination in this country.

It's no coincidence blacks are imprisoned at nearly six times the rate of whites. This does not suggest blacks are predisposed to crime, but that the system is designed to target people of color.

As the president aptly stated:

As a society, we have to acknowledge that there is something wrong when we are locking up this many folks with this kind of frequency, concentrated in a handful of communities in cities and towns and counties across this country. ...The people in these prisons are deserving of our attention. They're human beings with hopes and dreams, who in many cases have made profound mistakes but are American citizens nonetheless.

We need to stop defining ex-offenders by the crimes they've committed. We need to start seeing them for what they are: humans who, like the rest of us, are deeply flawed but capable of change and progress.

We can't fix our criminal justice system through legislative reform alone. We also have to change the way we perceive the individuals we lock up.

The United States cannot call itself the "land of the free" while it continues to deprive people of their liberty in such a systemic and imbalanced fashion. We can't incarcerate our way out of social problems, we have to work on them together.

President Obama is right, what we're doing is "un-American," and it's on all of us to push for reform.

Citations: Remarks by the President at Screening of VICE Documentary Fixing the System (White House), 3 IN 4 FORMER PRISONERS IN 30 STATES ARRESTED WITHIN 5 YEARS OF RELEASE (BJS), Sen Cory Booker Whats better for Americas status (CNN), From first arrest to life sentence (Washington Post), CRIMINAL JUSTICE FACT SHEET (NAACP)