Obama’s Clemency Push: A Symbolic Display of Humanist Criminology

On July 13, President Obama commuted the sentences of forty-six drug offenders, thirteen of which were serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes. These commutations, which began last year under the Clemency Project 2014, now come with new guidelines for remedying harsh drug laws and dealing with nonviolent crimes. Yesterday, July 14, the president joined former President Bill Clinton before the NAACP to deliver a speech on criminal justice reform. And today Obama will visit a federal prison as part of a Vice News documentary. It will be the first event of its kind both for Obama and the presidency.

With his recent action, Barack Obama solidifies his place as the president who has delivered the most commutations—almost ninety in total. In a video statement released yesterday he said, “I believe at its heart America is a nation of second chances…there is a lot more we can do to restore the fairness at the heart of the justice system.”

Indeed, the concepts of fairness and personal growth have become increasingly foreign in the US criminal justice system. This can be seen in the emergence of unforgiving sentencing laws like the so-called “three-strikes” laws that first came to pass in Washington and California. The laws developed in the early 1990s amidst an uproar of “get tough on crime” public sentiments, and they were fueled by the decades-old Nixonian cry that began the War on Drugs as we have come to know it.

Three strikes laws generally require that harsher sentences be imposed on repeat offenders, so that if someone commits a third crime after committing two felonies they’ll face a long sentence for the third. The idea is that after three offenses, an individual is either absolutely unwilling or unable to reform. This practice intensified in poorer communities, where harsher sentences were given for possession of crack than for cocaine. The entire institution was then propagated by the increasing presence of prison unions in California and other states, ensuring that more and more prisons would be put to use.

Gut-wrenching statistics, like the fact that one in three black males will be imprisoned in their lifetime, bear out the fact that young, poor, usually minority male individuals are being funneled out of their communities and into prison.

Surprisingly though, bipartisan cooperation on the issue seems to be possible. On March 10, 2015, Democratic Senator Cory Booker and GOP presidential candidate Rand Paul reintroduced their REDEEM Act, which is a proposal to reduce recidivism by supporting prisoner reentry to society. This is in addition to the even more surprising concern and initiative shown by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, who has lamented “over-criminalization” in the United States and is partnering with the Center for American Progress for this cause.

Thus, the chips are in place for serious, well-meaning reform to take place. The question now concerns what this reform will look like.

Once again, humanism has the answer. In a paper on humanist criminology, published in The American Sociologist in 2002, Lloyd Klein and Shela R. Van Ness explain what a humanist criminology model would look like:

The [criminal justice] machine can take account of different criminal offender groups and treat each according to serious social risk. The concomitant result encourages proper evaluation of human behavior and the creation of a calculus that truly evaluates each criminal in relative terms. We can then utilize the understanding gained from social involvement to transform the criminal justice system into a more discerning government institution.

Essentially, humanist criminology is a counter to dominant conventional criminology, which is based upon an applied form of social justice that becomes retributive both in name (i.e. War on Drugs) and in application (imprisonment rates skyrocket as crime rises just a little). Humanist criminology focuses on rehabilitation and community transformation. Moreover, it is the belief that drug offenders and juveniles, doing time for minor criminal offenses, are better served outside the prison setting through community-based and alternative correction programs. Simply stated: drug offenders are better off in rehab than in jail. And wouldn’t those who sell drugs be deterred more by the presence of better jobs than by a predatory cop?  Indeed, studies and testimonies have shown that many prison sentences simply serve as brief educational experiences where petty criminals and juvenile delinquents learn how to commit more serious forms of crime.

As the Former Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole recently stated, “For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair; but it also must be perceived as being fair.” This statement is a matter of life and death, as we have seen in the killings of young black men across the country. If an individual feels that the police are only patrolling their neighborhood in order to incarcerate them, they will be significantly more resistant to the presence of the police at every moment. It explains the anti-cop sentiment and vigilante spirit that emerged in hip-hop and rap during the creation of the three-strike laws in the nineties. Further, it leads to quick escalation and emotional responses on both sides, which inevitably leads to more cases of people dying. “Twenty-five to life” for selling drugs, with most getting life, is not fair—and when backed into a corner, people will resist. Humanist criminology offers a path towards a fairer system, and we can only hope that our government will do more than commute a few dozen sentences. What is urgently needed is the reorientation of criminal justice, so that it focuses on the individual’s rehabilitation and not just their crime.