Criminal Justice Reform is Having a “National Moment”

Maureen MurdockCriminal Justice System13 Comments

Barack Obama departs El Reno Prison

This week President Obama visited a federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma, marking the first time in history that any sitting president visited a prison. As the President looked into a 9 by 10 foot cell for 3 prisoners, containing 3 bunks, a night table with books, a small sink and toilet with no seat, he reflected on the life he might have had as a black man. “There for the grace of God,” he noted, highlighting the thin line between prisoner and president.

Obama’s visit supports a bi-partisan overhaul of American’s criminal justice system. I have written before of the Koch brothers support for changes in the criminal justice system. Now many Republicans and Democrats have come to the conclusion that we give excessive sentences to many low level non-violent offenders at an enormous moral and financial cost not only to the offender and his or her family but to entire communities. Most inmates upon their release, struggle to get jobs and housing because applications for employment and apartments all ask if the applicant has ever been convicted of a felony. Any felony, including drug possession or burglary. We’re not talking about rape, murder, or assault.

The prison was locked down during Obama’s visit so the only inmates he saw were 6 non-violent drug offenders who were selected to have a 45-minute conversation with the President that will be shown on HBO in the fall. After talking with the men, Obama commented that they did not have the kind of support structure, resources or second chances he did that would have allowed them to survive the mistakes they made. He went on to say: “We have a tendency to almost take for granted or think it’s normal. It’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people making mistakes.”

Advocates for criminal justice reform are addressing prison overcrowding, excessive sentencing and the dearth of rehabilitation programs both in prison and upon release. Republicans have been working with Democrats to draft legislation addressing such concerns. Speaker John A. Boehner said he would bring such legislation to the House floor this year.

I wish President Obama would have been there on Visiting Day to see the families lined up to see their loved one behind bars—usually sons or husbands—who instead should be home contributing to their families and communities. Prisoners are not the only persons out of sight, out of mind. So are their families.

13 Comments on “Criminal Justice Reform is Having a “National Moment””

  1. Maureen, once again, I am touched by your shining a light on this pervasive issue. Our cultural beliefs about “offenders” needs to change and you are on the forefront of what is, hopefully, a movement toward a more sane and beneficial-for-all stance on incarceration. Obama is right, there is a fine line between a life in a cell and the one many of us have. As to alternatives, Noble Prize winning economists have clearly shown that one public dollar spent before the age of one is worth up to 17 dollars after the age of one. Supporting our families, educating about and supporting mental health issues, and, as you say, supporting people who have made mistakes to turn their lives around and become contributing members of society.
    Reading Dozie’s note brought tears to my eyes. And, it doesn’t surprise me as I know of your wonderful work. Dozie, I hope you will write your story. We all need to know it. And, right here, with Maureen, is a great place to start. I applaud and support you and look forward to seeing you here again!

  2. Thanks for commenting on this momentous occasion of Obama’s visit to the prison. Given that prison life is sadly such a huge portion of how so many Americans live–or their family members do–it was good for him to bring attention to it. At least we got to hear some folks note that all the money spent on oppressive imprisonment would be better spent on the preventative measures of early childhood education, family supports, and employment development. But we learn so slowly. Thanks again for always been so perceptive, Maureen.

  3. Maureen, your words brought tears to my eyes. We as mothers surely must be able to find our collective voice to bring about change. Thank you for being an inspiration in speaking up about difficult issues. I am proud to be your friend. Hendrika.

  4. Here’s hoping. We expected this kind of action from the administration years ago. And isn’t it amazing that the Koch brothers are supportive! All good news..

  5. Let us hope.At least both parties seem to be in agreement.Great that Obama actually went to a prison .

  6. Thank you, Maureen. You were there for me when I needed that leaving TI. i will never forget that. I had a great support system people that many do not have, you were part of that…the stigma of being an felon NEVER ever goes away. I have made my way and am now 70years old, ready to share some of my story. I want to thank you for being my friend for so many years and your devotion to truth. XOXO Dozie

    1. Dozie, thank you so much for writing. I really hope you write your story. I’d be happy to put part of it on this blog! It’s so important for people to know what a struggle it is for convicted felons to make their way after incarceration and you did a splendid job. And I am proud to be your friend!

  7. Maureen, I am very glad you decided to go this route to get the first part of your book out. You continue to help and inspire me as I am writing a memoir on grief and resilience. Joyce Hocker

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