On December 19, 2013, President Obama announced his list presidential pardons of persons in the criminal justice system. In addition to the 13 pardons issued, President Obama commuted the prison terms of eight people convicted on federal crack cocaine charges.
Most significantly, the president’s stated reason for his decision is that these individuals were punished under laws that permitted unfair sentencing disparities.
Such disparities have been disproportionately applied to African Americans. In 2010 President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which mitigated the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine. The National Association of Social Workers applauds President Obama for commuting the sentences of these eight individuals and for his willingness to take concrete steps to right a wrong.
Also on December 19, 2013 the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs convened a roundtable discussion on criminal and juvenile justice reentry policies, programs, and challenges.
The meeting was chaired by Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, and included the heads of the Bureau of Prisons, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and many senior-level officials from other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
NASW and more than 50 other non-governmental organizations, participated in an active, meaningful dialogue about a public/private commitment to criminal (and juvenile justice) reforms, including racial disparities in arrests and sentencing.
The highlight of that meeting was the unannounced appearance of Attorney General Eric Holder who spoke to the more than 100 persons in attendance. Attorney General Holder said the Justice Department is absolutely committed to implementing reforms and promoting and funding programs that reduce re-arrests and recidivism.
He also stated that he will direct his agency heads to work with the advocacy community to develop and identify evidence-based solutions to decrease the level of incarceration in both the federal and state criminal justice systems. Holder also announced that President Obama will include a discussion on criminal justice reform in his State of the Union address on January 29, 2014.
Officials at NASW were encouraged to be a part of such a large number of philosophically and ethnically diverse groups at the Department of Justice’s Reentry Roundtable discussion.
Social workers are a arge part of the criminal justice and juvenile justice workforce. As such, NASW is one of the national leaders pushing for fairness and reasonableness applying federal and state laws.
NASW is pleased to see that the Attorney General and the Office of Justice Programs (as well as other agencies) are joining non-governmental organizations to ensure that people with mental illness and those with substance abuse disorders have access to treatment resources that are alternatives to incarceration.
The events of December 19 seem to herald a new era where meaningful and comprehensive criminal justice and juvenile justice reforms will become a reality. We are hopeful that President Obama’s State of the Union Address will reinforce our optimism.
To learn more about NASW’s work on justice reform contact Mel Wilson, manager of NASW’s Department of Social Justice and Human Rights, at firstname.lastname@example.org. And for more information about reform visit the following