Prison reforms: Obama takes steps in the right direction

December 1, 2015 — by Austin Wang

With over 2 million prisoners and more prisons than colleges, the U.S. lead the world in incarceration rates by a shamefully wide margin.  


U.S. nationalism is primarily built upon our ideals of life, liberty and property, but today we no longer lead the world in life expectancy, perceived liberty or economic freedom. However, with over 2 million prisoners and more prisons than colleges, we do lead the world in incarceration rates by a shamefully wide margin.  

Incarceration is a cyclical condition, as released prisoners are left without homes or jobs and often turn back to crime to make ends meet. And this cycle is only perpetuated by prejudice against former criminals.

A recent CNN report said that employment and callback rates are decreased by almost 50 percent for those with criminal records, and a 2014 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 2005, 68 percent of all released U.S. prisoners were arrested for a new crime within three years of their release.

Breaking out of this cycle of imprisonment is imperative for both inmates and their families as well as the U.S. In 2015, a White House study found that, with the $80 billion, the U.S. spends annually to maintain its prisons, the U.S. could double the salary of all high school teachers, provide universal preschool for every 3- to 4-year-old child and eliminate the tuition for every public university.

Noteworthy, however, is that this year, the Obama administration has been taking steps to overhaul the criminal justice system and lower incarceration rates.

Over the next few weeks, around 6,000 inmates imprisoned for minor drug offenses will be released due to a recent overhaul of sentence guidelines regarding non-violent crimes that the Obama administration approved.

President Obama has also pardoned 46 criminals who were sentenced to extended terms for the possession of drugs, though he has received over 1,000 applications that he has largely ignored. So while Obama has pardoned more criminals than the previous four presidents combined, he could still do far more.

Although these changes barely make a dent in the population of over a million criminals imprisoned for nonviolent drug possession-related crimes, they highlight Obama’s admirable intention to reform our prison system.

Beyond just freeing inmates, Obama has been trying to improve their lives after release by helping them find employment. Prisoners who were convicted for petty crimes, such as possession of marijuana, deserve a second chance once released from prison.

On Nov. 2, Obama announced several new measures to reintegrate former criminals into society. These measures included programs to help former criminals receive education grants and housing assistance as well as programs to teach criminals various skills to help them outside of prison.

Obama also announced a measure, known as the “ban the box” plan, that prevents employers from obtaining criminal records until late in the application process. This plan is meant to give ex-cons a shot at presenting their resume to an employer before being judged and turned away because of their criminal record.

Many people with criminal records deserve a second chance, especially those imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. What most fail to understand is that prisoners  are often raised in poverty and are unable to ever receive a full education, leaving them with many missed opportunities.

Once given an opportunity to learn, however, prisoners have shown themselves to be just as talented as those in prestigious colleges. For example, on Oct. 8, a debate team comprised of five prisoners from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility, beat the Harvard debate team, proving that prisoners are often filled with untapped potential.

Once criminals are released from prison, they should no longer be outcast and shunned. They deserve the same opportunities that many of us take for granted and should be encouraged to seek employment.

The Obama administration has taken strides in the right direction, but can make an even greater impact on the criminal justice system before Obama’s term is over. Obama should focus more on reintegrating non-violent criminals as they deserve a second chance in society more than those who have committed murder or rape.

Laws that lower minimum sentence requirements for petty crimes should be overturned, many more people wrongly sentenced in the war on drugs should be pardoned and more laws should be passed to educate and help at-risk children in high-crime neighborhoods.

The Obama administration has started the right path toward reforming the criminal justice system, and with a few more measures, America may once again be known as the home of the free and a place for second chances.


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