This week, President Obama will become the first, sitting U.S. President to visit a federal penitentiary. The visit comes at a moment when Democrats and Republicans are coming together to highlight a rare consensus: our prison system is expensive, burdensome, and ineffective.
Motivation to reform our prison systems touches on a broad series of values: safety, community, and justice. However, the discussion also highlights many ways we remain divided as a society.
As a nation, we have moved aggressively towards mass incarceration where people are locked away with lengthy sentences for low-level, non-violent crimes. The numbers are staggering, with prison populations growing 700% since 1970. Despite the dramatic spending levels on the federal, state, and local level, many offenders turn back to crime and drug use upon reentering society—highlighting our failure to truly address community safety, and underscoring the failure of the prison system to truly reform those who are incarcerated.
Additionally, the racial disparities in sentencing continue to tear away at the fabric of our society. We’ve created a criminal justice system that disproportionately affects those who are already living on the margins. A black drug offender is 20 percent more likely to be sentenced to prison when compared to a white offender, with the odds of a Hispanic drug offender being about 40 percent higher. Minorities represent the vast majority of those imprisoned, often serving longer sentences than their white counterparts. Once they are out of prison, people of color are also faced with higher levels of wage trajectory discrimination and voter disenfranchisement. Many would like to write these injustices off simply as a streak of racist judges and tough circumstances, but in doing so we fail to address the realities of the structural inequalities we have created.
In so many communities across the country, non-violent offenders are given lengthy sentences because of outdated statues that were set in the to deter drug trade and low-level crimes. These laws reflect a failed war on drugs, that was waged primarily in low-income communities with high concentrations of minorities. Certainly since the 1970's, crime rates have fallen—but we have little concrete evidence that that mass incarceration is the reason for these lower rates. For such little evidence, we are paying a massive societal and financial cost.
Matthew 25 is perhaps one of the most powerful, and also one of the most quoted passages from scripture. To quickly recap: we’re told, that when the Son of Man comes he will reward those who fed him when he was hungry, clothed him when he was naked, and visited him when he was imprisoned. Then, the righteous will ask, “when did we see you hungry, unclothed, or imprisoned” and the Lord will respond, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
I quote this story at the risk of being cliché. It is quoted so frequently (often as the rally call of progressives) that it runs the risk of becoming “overused.” That said, I think there are few times more appropriate than the present. It is important to note that visiting the imprisoned is listed among crucial human needs such as water, clothing and shelter. This should give us pause and make us realize that whether it’s visiting a prisoner physically, or “visiting” them by keeping them towards the forefront of our societal consciousness, we cannot forget those we have set apart.
Prisoners are often a forgotten people. Once they’re locked away, we tend to take up an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality. We’ve adopted a culture of blind and lengthy incarceration, rather than looking for solutions that keep communities safe while improving outcomes for offenders. I believe that we can have a system where offenders are held accountable for their offenses, where communities are kept safe, and where our broader understanding of community is expanded. Once someone commits a crime, and serves a just sentence, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that they can reintegrate into society as a productive, full member.
The President’s visit comes at an interesting moment in public life where it appears that the interest of the electorate is met with bipartisan cooperation. Public opinion on the issue continues to rise, with more and more Americans citing prison reform as an important issue. Policy makers on Capitol Hill are are introducing legislation to address this issue as well. In the final leg of the President’s administration, prison reform can become an important part of his legacy—and people of faith have a role to play.
“Visiting” those who are imprisoned, both in heart and consciousness is an important step in restoring our societal fabric. Remembering those who are too often easy to forget will not only make economic sense, but will also keep our communities safe, inclusive, and just. I hope that the President's visit will give faith communities everywhere the motivation to call out and remember that whatever we do for the least of these, we've done for Him.