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July 17, 2015

Politicians rethink criminal justice


President Barack Obama and Republicans are having a rare moment of agreement over the need to change the U.S. criminal justice system.

With more than 2.2 million people behind bars in the U.S., the movement for solutions to the nation’s overflowing prisons and high number of incarcerated minority men has grown in recent years, picking up political support from Republicans and Democrats alike.

President Obama toured the Federal Correctional Institution, El Reno outside Oklahoma City on Thursday, becoming the first-ever sitting president to visit a federal prison.

The visit followed a week in which the president commuted sentences for 46 drug offenders and addressed racial disparities within the justice system at the NAACP National Convention in Philadelphia. The president said that blacks and Hispanics make up 60 percent of the country’s prison population, despite being only 30 percent of the overall U.S. population.

On Thursday, Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie announced a plan to require inmates to pursue their GED while incarcerated in order to be better prepared to find a job upon release.

Eighteen of the 20 candidates currently running for president have now voiced support for some degree of reform, and a number of bills related to criminal justice are making their way through Congress.

Even business leaders, including politically-influential Koch Industries, Target and Wal-Mart have all pledged to make it easier for ex-convicts to find work by removing requirements to declare prior convictions from job applications.

Still, some law enforcement officials warn against too much leniency. Federal prosecutor Steve Wasserman points out that there were significantly higher crime levels two decades ago, before the increased incarceration efforts. “Crime is at its lowest levels in a generation,” he said.

Warm up questions
  1. What does the term “criminal justice” mean?
  2. What is the role of jails in our society?
  3. What forms of racial disparities exist in the U.S.?
  4. How does the size of the U.S. prison population compare to other countries?
Critical thinking questions
  1. What socio-economic factors contribute to the high number of incarcerated minorities in the U.S.?
  2. How do prison education and not requiring ex-convicts to state prior convictions on job applications contribute to the reform movement?
  3. What other ways could we address crime, other than jailing criminals?
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