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February 25, 2014

Curious racial politics omission in otherwise astute analysis of Prez Obama's criminal justice reform record

New York Times big-wig Bill Keller has this interesting final column headlined "Crime and Punishment and Obama," which discusses his transition to a notable new job in the context of a review of Prez Obama's criminal justice record.  Here are excerpts of a piece which should be read in full and which, as my post title suggests, does not discuss racial politics as much as I would expect: 

[W]hen the former community organizer took office, advocates of reform had high expectations.

In March I will give up the glorious platform of The Times to help launch something new: a nonprofit journalistic venture called The Marshall Project (after Thurgood Marshall, the great courtroom champion of civil rights) and devoted to the vast and urgent subject of our broken criminal justice system.  It seems fitting that my parting column should address the question of how this president has lived up to those high expectations so far....

In his first term Obama did not make this a signature issue; he rarely mentioned the subject....

In practice, the administration’s record has been more incremental than its rhetoric.

By the crudest metric, the population of our prisons, the Obama administration has been unimpressive.  The famously shocking numbers of Americans behind bars (the U.S., with 5 percent of the world’s people, incarcerates nearly a quarter of all prisoners on earth) have declined three years in a row.  However the overall downsizing is largely thanks to California and a handful of other states.  In overstuffed federal prisons, the population continues to grow, fed in no small part by Obama’s crackdown on immigration violators.

Obama is, we know, a cautious man, leery of getting ahead of public opinion and therefore sometimes far behind it.  And some reform advocates argue that it made sense for Obama to keep a low profile until a broad bipartisan consensus had gathered.  That time has come. Now that Obama-scorners like Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee and even Ted Cruz are slicing off pieces of justice reform for their issue portfolios, now that red states like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri and Kentucky have embraced alternatives to prison, criminal justice is one of those rare areas where there is common ground to be explored and tested.

The Obama presidency has almost three years to go, and there is reason to hope that he will feel less constrained, that the eight commutations were not just a pittance but, as he put it, “a first step,” that Holder’s mounting enthusiasm for saner sentencing is not just talk, but prelude, that the president will use his great pulpit to prick our conscience.

“This is something that matters to the president,” Holder assured me last week.  “This is, I think, going to be seen as a defining legacy for this administration.”  I’ll be watching, and hoping that Holder’s prediction is more than wishful thinking

This column covers a lot of modern criminal justice ground quite well, and gets me even more excited for Keller's forthcoming new journalistic venture called The Marshall Project. But I find curious and notable that this commentary does not directly address the racialized political dynamics that necessarily surrounds the first African-American Prez and AG if and whenever they prioritize criminal justice reform.

I have heard that Thurgood Marshall, when doing advocacy work with the NAACP before he became a judge, was disinclined to focus on criminal justice reform because he realized the politics of race made it hard enough for him to garner support for even law-abiding people of color. Consequently, while important federal elections in which Prez Obama is the key player still loom, I suspect the Prez and his team have made a very calculated decision to only move very slowly (and behind folks like Senator Rand Paul) on these matters.

And yet, just as Thurgood Marshall could and did make criminal justice reform a priority when he became a judge and Justice insulated from political pressure, so too am I expecting that Prez Obama will prioritize criminal justice issues once he in the last two lame-duck years of his time in the Oval Office. Two years is ample time for the Prez to make federal criminal justice reform a "defining legacy for this administration," and there is good reason to think political and social conditions for bold reform work will be in place come 2015 and 2016 (even with the inevitably racialized realities surrounding these issues).

February 25, 2014 at 11:27 AM | Permalink

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"In March I will give up the glorious platform of The Times to help launch something new: a nonprofit journalistic venture called The Marshall Project (after Thurgood Marshall, the great courtroom champion of civil rights) and devoted to the vast and urgent subject of our broken criminal justice system."

If that's Keller's reason for leaving his present job, he should stay put.

What would the average citizen say is the better measure of whether the criminal justice system is "broken" -- the incarceration rate or the crime rate?

The answer is too obvious to elaborate.

Sure, among pro-defense types who are frustrated that the prosecution got the goods on their client, the wail is that the incarceration rate is too high and "therefore" the system is "broken."

But to the general public, the fact that the country has succeeded in reducing crime to levels not seen in fifty years is a sign, not of a broken system, but a remarkably successful one.

A little contrasting example will shed some light. After spending incomparably more on anti-poverty and income maintenance programs than we have on incarceration, more people are now living below the poverty line than at any time since it was created two generations ago.

So which is more effective in doing its assigned task -- very expensive anti-poverty programs, or relatively cheap incarceration?

Or, to put it more succinctly: The criminal justice system can be considered broken only if you ignore the most important fact about the criminal justice system.

Yikes.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 25, 2014 1:30:20 PM

// “The Obama presidency has almost three years to go, and there is reason to hope that
 he will feel less constrained,
that the eight commutations were not just a pittance but, as he put it, “a first step,” that Holder’s mounting enthusiasm …
that the president will use his great pulpit to prick our conscience.”

“This is something that matters to the president,” Holder assured me last week.
“This is, I think, going to be seen as a defining legacy for this administration.” \\

-- -- Don’t let it worry Keller or Vladimir (rasPutin) . . .
Worst case scenario for dictators/socialists/liberals:
he’ll wait till 30 minutes before midnight to pull his indefensible pardons, a.k.a. the ‘Rog-the Coca-Cola-Kid-Clinton, or the ‘Marc-Richy-Rich’.

 President Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.
 President Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.

{abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/03}

Posted by: Adamakis | Feb 25, 2014 5:38:30 PM

| Curious racial politics omission |

"If Obama was a white man, he would be impeached," said Rev. William Owens, the Coalition of African American Pastors’founder and president.

"Obama has been given a free pass to do what he pleases, but I don't give him a pass."

The group is seeking support for Eric Holder’s impeachment, citing “his latest directives to Department of Justice employees to interpret same-sex ‘marriage’ status as broadly as possible
even in those states which do not recognize these unions…
The Attorney General has brazenly overstepped the bounds of his authority and he must be held accountable."

"He will go down in history as the worst attorney general," Owens said.

The black pastors said it is a shame that President Obama has used the civil rights movement as a platform to champion gay rights.

"It's a disgrace that this man has stood on the shoulders of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.," Owens said. "I detest them calling this a civil rights movement.
It's not a civil rights movement; it's a civil wrongs movement."

Read more: http://thehill.com/blogs/regwatch/administration/199163-black-pastors-want-holder-impeached-over-gay-marriage#ixzz2uNOzH3Sr

Posted by: Adamakis | Feb 25, 2014 6:03:40 PM

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