Barack Obama made a bit of history Thursday, becoming the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. This follows a pretty impressive speech to the NAACP Wednesday, in which he said some things that, for a Democrat in earlier decades, would have prompted months of conservatives howling about the president being "soft on crime" -- and other Democrats attempting damage control by sponsoring Get Tuff legislation.

But none of that seems to be happening this time around -- for the first time in ages, we're actually at a point where even some Republicans are taking prison reform seriously. OK, sure, they're people like Rand Paul during his five-minute periods of sanity, or the Koch brothers, weirdly enough, but support is support, just as long as we can still mock them on everything else. Even John For Chrissakes Boehner said, when asked about Obama's remarks on prison reform, that America imprisons many people "that really don't need to be there" and that "some of these people are in there under what I'll call flimsy reasons." He really said that. Is this a sign that the End Times have arrived?

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In his NAACP speech, Obama acknowledged that there are plenty of Very Bad People who should never see the outside of a prison cell. But the problem with our "justice" "system" is that it sweeps up entirely too many people who don't fit that description, which is where Our Barry got into the second-term mode that we find ourselves liking so much:

I’m going to shine a spotlight on this issue, because while the people in our prisons have made some mistakes -- and sometimes big mistakes -- they are also Americans, and we have to make sure that as they do their time and pay back their debt to society that we are increasing the possibility that they can turn their lives around.

That doesn’t mean that we will turn everybody’s life around. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some hard cases. But it does mean that we want to be in a position in which if somebody in the midst of imprisonment recognizes the error of their ways, is in the process of reflecting about where they’ve been and where they should be going, we’ve got to make sure that they’re in a position to make the turn.

That's a hell of a change from the way politicians usually talk about crime and punishment. The man sounds like some kind of crazy early 20th Century Progressive, even. He didn't quite say the word "rehabilitation" -- the word does not appear in the speech -- but he acknowledged that turning people into lifetime pariahs after any conviction results in permanent economic disadvantages, not just for the former prisoners, but for their families and communities. That's the community organizer we voted for.

Obama also said that we need (gasp!) to make prisons themselves less horrible places, because of the whole thing where prisoners are actually human and stuff:

[We] should not tolerate conditions in prison that have no place in any civilized country. We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison. We should not be tolerating gang activity in prison. We should not be tolerating rape in prison. And we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture. That’s no joke. These things are unacceptable.

No prison rape jokes? Congratulations, Mr. President, you are now in full compliance with Wonkette's commenting guidelines! Pity, though, you may have just lost the Howard Stern audience.

During his visit to El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma, Obama continued the theme of calling for prison reform, noting that while he had no tolerance for violent crime, he believed that sentencing reform is needed for nonviolent drug offenses:

[When] we’re looking at nonviolent offenders, most of them growing up in environments in which the drug traffic is common, where many of their family members may have been involved in the drug trade, we have to reconsider whether 20-year, 30-year, life sentences for nonviolent crimes is the best way for us to solve these problems.

Obama met with six inmates, and said that the difference between who ends up in prison and who doesn't is often a roll of the socioeconomic dice. His comments to reporters on that deserve a full blockquote, folks:

I’ve said this before -- when they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made. The difference is they did not have the kinds of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.

And I think we have a tendency sometimes to almost take for granted or think it’s normal that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system. It’s not normal. It’s not what happens in other countries.

What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people making mistakes. And we’ve got to be able to distinguish between dangerous individuals who need to be incapacitated and incarcerated versus young people who, in an environment in which they are adapting but if given different opportunities, a different vision of life, could be thriving the way we are.

That’s what strikes me -- there but for the grace of God. And that I think is something that we all have to think about.

That's our second-term, don't-give-a-damn-about-wingnut-reaction Barry, and we like him a hell of a lot. Just imagine how nice it would be to have a House and Senate that would actually get some of this reform stuff done.

[NPR / The White House / The Guardian]

Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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