Is prison reform a priority for the White House?

A graphic showing where incarcerated men and women come from in Brooklyn, NY. Photo: GSAPP_SIDL Some rights reserved

A graphic showing where incarcerated men and women come from in Brooklyn, NY. Photo: GSAPP_SIDL Some rights reserved

Ask how President Obama’s been confronting criminal justice reform, and about his efforts to improve the lives of black men (two issues that are inextricably linked), and you’ll see that a lot’s happened just in the past six months. And at the same time, politicians across the aisle are starting to agree that four decades of mass incarceration has laid too many lives, communities, and taxpayer dollars to waste.

Three examples: his Attorney General’s speech last August, his commutations of eight people serving long sentences for crack cocaine, and his most recent initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper,” which he introduced during last month’s State of the Union. Did you catch it? If you said no, you’re not alone. I think a lot of people missed it, in part because it’s possible that society’s ears are all just starting to adjust to this new tone in the mainstream conversation, about where we are 40 years into the War on Drugs. There wasn’t much in the news about the initiative, and as Kenneth Braswell of Fathers Incorporated pointed out, the SOTU crowd responded with…silence.

“My Brother’s Keeper” was supposed to be officially launched last week, but the ceremony was postponed on account of a snow storm. The President’s plan pledges to “help more young men of color…stay on track and reach their full potential,” pointing out that the unemployment rate for African-American men is currently twice the rate of white men. According to the Washington Post, “an administration official said the ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ effort will consist of two main parts. First, the official said, businesses and foundations will join together to test strategies aimed at ‘making sure children arrive at school ready to learn and reducing negative interactions with the criminal justice system.’ Second, Obama will launch an internal administration effort to more rigorously evaluate what programs work best at helping young minority males. The Education and Justice departments, for example, recently updated guidelines provided to school districts on the most effective disciplinary policies.”

Tavis Smiley, speaking with Kenneth Braswell, asks ten questions about “My Brother’s Keeper.” One is whether the country is really willing to confront these issues, and whether the efforts Obama is making will have a legacy and a momentum that will carry on after his term is up. You can listen to their conversation here, it’s just twelve minutes long.

P.S. Did you know about the National Reentry Resource Center? It started three months into Obama’s presidency.


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Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, the NY Council for the Humanities and by numerous individual donors via Kickstarter. Special assistance provided by the Adirondack Community Trust.