On Oct. 21, 2015, I wrote an article for The Miscellany News, “War on Drugs has produced steep unforeseen (sic) casualties,” detailing both the implicit and explicit failures of America’s War on Drugs and the realities of many individuals who unjustly suffer as a result. Particularly, the War on Drugs has disproportionately affected minorities, highlighting institutional injustice that pervades governmental bureaucracy. The article called for a change of tone and administrative reform in terms of drug and crime policy.
On Monday, Nov. 2, 2015, President Barack Obama boldly progressed the drug conversation significantly.
The President, who was relatively soft-spoken regarding drug and criminal justice reform in his first term, introduced a series of executive orders and measures in Newark, N.J., focusing on the Newark campus of Rutgers University and a drug rehabilitation center, Integrity House. Obama appeared in a round-table discussion with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and junior United States Senator from New Jersey (and former Mayor of Newark) Cory Booker to discuss criminal justice reform at the local and federal levels, while emphasizing the personal successes of former prisoners and meaningful discourse about rehabilitation. The measures Obama plans to order will limit the amount of barriers excluding ex-convicts from federal jobs, making strides in beginning to undo the damage of decades of intense retributive justice, institutional prejudice and stigmatization
Obama is working in solidarity with other municipalities and states that have also introduced measures to “ban the box.” The “box” refers to the small check box on job applications that indicates whether the applicant has been convicted of a felony or not.
Obama’s executive order will apply to federal employers still asking this question in early stages of the application process. Obama and other criminal rights activists “… argue that those formerly in prison should be allowed to prove their qualifications for a job instead of being eliminated early in the process due to their criminal background,” (The Huffington Post, “Obama To Announce Executive Action To ‘Ban The Box,’” 11.02.2015). This piece of administrative action, albeit deceptively small and low-reaching, symbolizes a glimmer of hope in a government still riddled with prisoners who don’t deserve to be incarcerated and drug laws that dehumanize and devalue their victims.
While drug-related crimes were not explicitly mentioned in press release statements by the administration prior to Obama’s visit, the president’s visit to the drug treatment center in Newark resonated strongly with drug reform policies and reversing previous legislation that unfairly impact addicts, minorities and the impoverished. During his tour of Integrity House, Obama hoped that “we can see more and more places like Integrity House” (Associated Press, “In criminal justice push, Obama to call for steps to ease former inmates back into society,” 11.02.2015).
However, Obama’s visit has not been without opposition. New Jersey Governor, presidential candidate and career bully Chris Christie has vehemently criticized Obama’s rhetoric in Newark, citing “inadequate support for law enforcement.” He has expressed frustration with Obama “taking credit” for attempts at criminal justice reform within the state of New Jersey. While Christie has signed bills improving access to drug treatment for individuals in drug court, his governorship has been less than stellar in terms of drug reform (opposing New Jersey’s limited medical marijuana measures, for instance) and has vowed to crack down on marijuana if elected president, despite supposedly opposing the War on Drugs.
“He has not done anything on criminal justice reform in seven years as president,” Christie said on Fox News. However, this thinly disguised attempt at legitimate criticism reeks of bias, especially in the context of Christie’s desperate attempt to raise his polling numbers which have been abysmal. For a governor who has continuously cut pensions for state law enforcement, accusing Obama of not adequately promoting the welfare of police forces is egregiously hypocritical. If Christie does not gain significant momentum, he will be excluded from the next Republican debate.
The White House fired back. Citing Christie’s lack of progression despite relatively positive reviews post-debate, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said his statement is “not surprising for somebody whose poll numbers are close to an asterisk. Clearly this is part of the strategy to turn that around. We’ll see if it works,” (Associated Press).
Recently, all three Democratic presidential candidates have voiced their support for “banning the box” and similar measures reducing drug laws. However, the War on Drugs and criminal reform has proved to be a bilateral issue. Senator Booker has recently introduced legislation into Congress to cut mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders at the criminal level, a rare instance of bipartisan sentiment in a staunchly divided and polarized legislature.
Republican figures such as Rand Paul have expressed similar sentiments regarding the futility and devastation of the current War on Drugs and its subsequent effects on the justice system. “I see an America where criminal justice is applied equally and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed,” Paul stated, referencing the inherently oppressive and discriminatory nature of drug laws (The Washington Examiner, “Rand Paul calls for repeal of drug laws; reaches out to minority voters,” 04.07.2015). Paul’s sentiments have been echoed throughout the right, underscoring the gross inadequacies of America’s drug policies and the necessity of immediate action. Only a handful of pundits and politicians have called for maintaining the status quo, such as presidential candidate Jeb Bush. While there has been a large and enthusiastic support base for reform, political obstacles still stand in the way.
In the final half of his second term, Obama has been unwaveringly committed to criminal justice reform in the United States. His recent visit to the Federal Correctional Institution at El Reno developed his shifting rhetoric in terms of administrative attitudes towards prisoners, particularly those convicted of drug-related crimes. His visit to Newark and subsequent plans for executive action to address the failures of America’s drug war and the near-sighted catastrophe of Reagan’s massive expansion of deterrence marks a significant tonal modification in actual political action rather than simple discourse.
Discussion surrounding improving the lives of ex-convicts and reforming criminal codes has been circulating for months, particularly since Obama’s visit to El Reno. However, through the introduction of these executive orders and Booker’s recent introduction of a criminal reform bill, real progress is being made towards achieving a more just, stable and humane system.
Of course, no single piece of legislation or executive action serves as a panacea for the deeply entrenched aftershocks of the War on Drugs or will magically undo the tragic ripple effects on minority communities. Despite this, the Obama administration has been striving to sincerely reform the systems that have allowed such abuses to occur. Focus and action must continue in regards to de-stigmatization, rehabilitation and bureaucratic restructuring in order to fully address and effectively dismantle the War on Drugs for good.