It was only 16 words. And even in the Twittersphere, where the speech was endlessly picked apart, it didn’t seem to merit too many mentions. But it might have represented the biggest single departure in domestic U.S. policy in a generation.
“I hope we can work together this year on some bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform.”
This mention is widely understood to be referring to the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which would finally reduce mandatory minimum sentences for many non-violent and drug crimes and be a small but significant step toward easing mass incarceration.
The fact that the president described the effort as a “bipartisan priority” – and indeed, it has the support of everyone from the NAACP to the Koch brothers – is staggering considering how long the drumbeat of the War on Drugs and the race to be toughest on crime has guided American politics, as the Guardian points out:
“[F]or decades in American political life, the parties and their leaders competed on who could be more punitive and draconian on criminal sentencing; for a president to stand before the American people and call on Congress to pass legislation to reduce imprisonment is unprecedented.”
The bill and its passing mention in the State of the Union address are a clear sign that consensus is changing, but they are hardly the end of the story. For one thing, neither the bill nor the speech mention race and the way drug and sentencing laws have been designed to disproportionately incarcerate African Americans and establish what Michelle Alexander describes as “The New Jim Crow.”
Also, as the Guardian points out, “the current bill focuses on reducing the federal prison population, but 85% of inmates are housed in state-controlled prisons,” and adds that “[t]he federal government could make a large impact on state policy, by taking the $3.8 billion in federal grants that currently and all-but-automatically subsidize mass incarceration in the states – much of that because of the 1994 Crime Bill and similar efforts – and using those funds to encourage states to reduce imprisonment while keeping down crime.”
But still, it was a pleasantly jarring moment to hear such a dramatic shift, even if only in rhetoric and limited legislation, come after years of movement in the opposite direction.