What Obama Didn't Say About Criminal-Justice Reform

Taking the campaign for reform to prison.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama visited a federal prison on Thursday, two days after sharply criticizing the U.S. criminal-justice system in a well-received speech. It is both surprising and gratifying that many of his proposals are gaining bipartisan support in Congress.

Yet what Obama didn't say in his speech is no less important.

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

He rightly lamented the huge growth in incarceration that has occurred over the past four decades, from 500,000 people behind bars in 1980 to more than 2.3 million today. But as the numbers show, incarceration has exploded mostly because of increases in violent and property crimes and longer sentences for them. Even if every single drug offender were released today, there would still be more than 1.8 million people who are locked up.

That doesn't diminish the need to lessen sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and on Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner said he supports a bipartisan bill that would scale back mandatory minimums. But the president should not pretend that the growth in incarceration is only, or even mostly, a function of the war on drugs. It's not.

Obama lauded his administration's efforts to reduce the number of incarcerated nonviolent drug offenders, including by commuting the sentences of 46 inmates on Monday. But if the nation's drug laws are so unfair, why has he has found so few deserving inmates out of the nearly 100,000 federal drug offenders?

He didn't give a reason. Nor did he mention that since 2008, the year he was elected president, the population of drug offenders in federal prison increased by 5 percent -- even as it declined by 16 percent at the state level. Obama's Department of Justice is lagging, not leading, on this issue.

The president also cited statistics showing that black and Latino Americans are paying the biggest price for the steep rise in incarceration rates. He's right about that: Blacks and Latinos make up 30 percent of the U.S. population but about 60 percent of its prison population, as he noted, and black Americans are both more likely to be arrested and "more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime."

Racial bias in the criminal-justice system persists, but racial disparities in prison persist for another important reason: Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately the perpetrators -- and victims -- of crimes.

That is a hard truth to face -- but it's a necessary one. Obama is clearly not averse to speaking about the importance of responsibility in the black community; he's done it scores of times, before he became president and after. It shouldn't be controversial to note that the black community has an essential role to play in reducing crime, and thus disparities in the criminal-justice system.   

Obama's speech contained several good ideas, and it is encouraging that momentum is building to address the inequalities of the criminal-justice system. But any honest solution to this problem will require a more complete accounting of it.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.