President Obama, Michael Vick, and Santa Claus

Thursday, December 30, 2010

In the final days of the year, typically dominated by annual “best of” lists, a simple call by President Obama managed to spur multiple headlines and ignite a flurry of conversations.

In his call to Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, President Obama reportedly applauded the team for giving quarterback Michael Vick a second chance. In 2007 Vick pleaded guilty to charges related to practices of animal cruelty, and served a 19-month sentence in federal prison. The President reportedly told Lurie, “So many people who serve time never get a fair second chance. It's never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail.”

The President’s call emphasized an important reality that more and more political leaders and policymakers are acknowledging: America has a big problem with over-incarceration, and its pernicious effects are not limited to the grim confines inside of jailhouse walls.

America has the ignominious distinction of having more of its citizens incarcerated than any nation in world history. This rate of incarceration is astronomically expensive; it has devastating effects on families and entire communities. It’s little wonder that Britain’s Economist has called the U.S. “a nation of jailbirds,” and a legal scholar recently characterized the American gulag as “a human rights nightmare occurring on our watch.”

And it's not just human rights activists and civil libertarians who are calling for reform. Recently a coalition of prominent conservatives, including former Reagan administration Attorney General Ed Meese, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and former Washington GOP gubernatorial candidate Bob Williams, issued a statement calling for significant criminal justice reform. Their statement noted that overincarceration can “have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders—making them a greater risk to the public than when they entered.”

In this holiday season it is not inappropriate to point out that the original Saint Nicholas was subjected to solitary punishment and Jesus himself was a victim of the death penalty. As we enter the New Year, a recent announcement offers a small glimmer of hope: Since 1980 the number of incarcerated citizens has increased every year, but for the first time since the Bureau of Justice Statistics began compiling data the number decreased slightly in 2008. The trend is finally moving in the right direction, but we have a long way to go in 2011 and beyond.