Obama breaks Administration’s silence on War on Drugs

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.

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