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SOTU: Free the People

January 26, 2011 ·

During the campaign Obama said his favorite TV show was The Wire. He "gets" injustice, but he missed his chance to demonstrate leadership tonight.

With 2.3 million prisoners in the United States (about one quarter of all the prisoners on the planet), it's a shame President Barack Obama didn't bring up criminal justice reform.

It's one of the few areas in which the U.S. is still No. 1. We incarcerate more people than any other country in the world, and nearly one quarter of our prisoners are there for nonviolent drug offenses.

Even far right figures like Newt Gingrich have pleaded for prison reform because it's breaking our budgets — especially at the state level. Moreover, Rev. Pat Robertson has called for decriminalizing marijuana because jail is "costing us a fortune and it's ruining young people."

Even though this is a traditional third-rail issue, there's tremendous political cover for Obama to come out for reform. Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have all admitted to drug use. Obama himself wrote about his use of marijuana and cocaine.

These facts raise an important question of fairness: Would a good stiff prison sentence have been good for them and their careers? If not, then why is it so good for everyone else (especially poor people and people of color)? What message does that then send to kids? "Don't get caught?"

The budgetary and political stars are finally aligned for serious criminal justice reform. Just yesterday, a group of former world leaders and other dignitaries came out against the drug war. With this much political cover, he would be practically impervious to jabs from the right.

Must we wait for another epoch before they realign to do what is right? Please lead, sir.