The U.S. Prison Crisis

Barack Obama, buoyed by his recent domestic and international triumphs, is now directing his gaze to an area close to his heart: the U.S. penal system. As unnecessarily repressive as it is inefficient and racially discriminatory, the United States supports the largest prison population in the world, with over 2.3 million people in prison. Nearly 50,000 suffer in prison for life.

This explosion in incarceration is not due to more serious crimes being committed over the past few decades. On the contrary, the number of violent crimes committed has fallen significantly compared to figures from 20 or 30 years ago. Its basic origins lie in a system that imposes compulsory, incredibly high penalties — which are absurdly disproportionate — on underage offenders, and which especially hit young, black transgressors hard.

Obama is proposing a series of measures such as humanizing the prison system, increasing support programs, and facilitating the reintegration of ex-prisoners. However, these reforms are more well-intentioned than practical. Making the U.S. penal system less cruel and more functional above all requires a change in mindset of the parties directly involved and of citizens themselves, in addition to reducing excessive sentences and allowing judges to tailor sentences and impose alternative punishments to imprisonment. In the last analysis, it is about instilling the idea in society that the damage caused by widespread incarceration far exceeds its benefits.

The reform is complicated and Obama’s powers limited. Judges and district attorneys are normally elected positions in the U.S. and indulging with criminals is considered a political risk. But the objective of penal policy is not revenge. The steady reduction in crime should serve as an incentive to the White House and Congress, who have the final word, to work on reforming a dysfunctional and unjust system once and for all.

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