In recent months, President Obama has initiated a discussion to help set the United States on a path to begin reforming our criminal justice system. In July, Obama commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders, saying that “their punishments didn’t fit the crime.” He also gave a powerful speech to the NAACP on the subject, and he toured a federal penitentiary, taking time to have an in-depth conversation with inmates.
The statistics are astonishing. More than 2.4 million people are behind bars in the United States today. The US incarcerates more people than any civilized nation on earth. The US has 5% percent of the world’s population, but has 25% of the world’s prisoners. To help put that in perspective, the US locks up more of its citizens than the top thirty-five European countries combined. The most shocking statistic may be the comparison of the US incarceration rate to that of Communist China. China has a population of approximately 2.5 billion. The US has four times more people in our prison system than China, even though our population tops off at just over 318 million. Either the US has the worst citizens on earth, or we have a system that is in serious need of reform.
President Obama’s remarks on the need for criminal justice reform are the focus of a documentary titled “Fixing the System,” which premiered today on HBO. The documentary features video footage of Obama’s historic tour of the Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, in July. The occasion marked the first time a sitting president has ever visited a federal prison.
It is encouraging to see President Obama working to highlight the need for criminal justice reform. But words alone will solve nothing. We need to see action. American citizens need to stand up and demand change. We need to make it well known to our elected officials that this is an important issue that requires immediate attention. Furthermore, we need to insist that criminal justice reform be made a campaign issue for the 2016 presidential election.