Obama Kicks Off Criminal Justice Reform Effort with Marshall Project Panel Discussion

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October 22, 2015; The Marshall Project

The Marshall Project’s editor in chief, Bill Keller, held a panel discussion with President Barack Obama centered on the president’s new plan prioritizing criminal justice reform. Joining the conversation with Keller and Obama were L.A. police chief Charlie Beck and U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado John Walsh.

Obama started the conversation by discussing his own thoughts on the state of criminal justice reform, recognizing that the country is at a unique crossroads when it comes to changing its approach to a variety of criminal justice issues such as mass incarceration, mandatory sentencing, police-community relations, and drug treatment for inmates.

Keller, as moderator, visited a wide range of topics—in particular, the notion of addressing the problem of mass incarceration by eliminating mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. In the last five years, Colorado and California have demoted drug offenses to misdemeanors as part of a court-ordered effort to reduce the prison population. Obama indicated that while this would not eliminate the issue of mass incarceration, it would still help the overall effort while keeping the crime rate low.

Police chief Beck remarked on another major issue, that of providing mental health assistance and drug treatment for inmates not just on the federal level, but on the state and local levels where most inmates interact with the legal system.

Part of the discussion focused on the various issues of mistrust that have arisen from the Black Lives Matter movement and whether the legal system has properly addressed those issues so far. Obama acknowledged that there were certainly issues with how some police officers were interacting with their communities, but these issues of mistrust are reflections of both sides.

This panel is part of Obama’s push for criminal justice reform, which he plans to prioritize during his final year in office. Earlier this week, he was in West Virginia, where he held a conversation on drug rehabilitation and treatment for heroin.

“Much of our criminal justice system remains unfair,” Mr. Obama said in a video produced by the administration. “In recent years, more of our eyes have been opened to this truth. We can’t close them anymore.”

“Over the last few decades, we’ve also locked up more non-violent offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before,” he continued. “That’s the real reason our prison population is so high.”

In July, Obama commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders, and under his presidency, nearly 6,000 men and women are scheduled to be released beginning next week in the largest one-time prisoner release in U.S. history.—Shafaq Hasan