- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 15, 2015

In demanding the nation overhaul its criminal justice system, President Obama has zeroed in on an issue ripe for true bipartisan action, but he’s also given himself an immense political challenge as activists now expect him to deliver tangible results quickly.

Groups ranging from the ACLU to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and others have delivered specific requests to the president, urging him to ban questions about criminal history from federal job applications, end “cash bail” and take a host of additional steps as the White House eyes a comprehensive package of justice-system reforms.

Mr. Obama this week has focused extensively on the issue and Thursday will become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he tours a facility in El Reno, Oklahoma.

During the trip, activist groups say Mr. Obama should spend time with a prisoner currently in solitary confinement, just one example of the specific actions the president now is under pressure to take.

“To further solidify his legacy on this issue, later this week President Obama has an opportunity to bear witness to the suffering that at least 80,000 people endure each day in solitary confinement. The president will not see the harsh reality of the prison system without first witnessing the torture of solitary confinement,” said the Rev. Ron Stief, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

The White House hasn’t said whether the president will visit a solitary cell, though he is scheduled to meet with inmates in El Reno.

SEE ALSO: Obama commutes sentences for 46 drug offenders

In addition to calling for a review of solitary confinement, Mr. Obama this week also said the U.S. strongly should consider ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Such action, he said, would be a key piece of the larger reform agenda that has growing bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and across the country.

“The good news is this is one of those rare issues where we’ve got some Republican and Democratic interest, as well as federal, state and local interest in solving the problem,” Mr. Obama said during a White House news conference Wednesday. “I think people recognize there are violent criminals out there and they’ve got to be locked up but what we also know is this huge spike in incarcerations is also driven by nonviolent drug offenses where the sentencing is completely out of proportion with the crime.”

Indeed, an ACLU poll released Wednesday shows that 69 percent of voters say it’s time to reduce the nation’s 2.2 million prison population. Roughly one in four prisoners worldwide resides in the U.S.

Reducing that population through treatment programs, probation and other alternatives for nonviolent drug offenders, analysts say, should be central to the reform agenda.

But specialists also say Mr. Obama must recognize that he can’t change the entire system overnight and instead should focus on a few specific areas while also serving as the symbolic leader of the criminal justice reform movement.

“There’s a mountain of things that need to be done because the crisis in the criminal justice system — these are things that have been building for years, decades, really,” said Montre Carodine, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law who has written extensively on race relations. “There are a number of potential avenues he can go down in terms of mapping out a reform strategy. If he can accomplish even a few of those things, that would be a huge accomplishment and he would get a tremendous amount of credit for even tackling it.”

In addition to solitary confinement, activist groups say Mr. Obama should address a system that often puts Americans awaiting trial behind bars because they can’t afford to post bail.

“We could have a much safer, fairer, and more effective system if the president would take a stand this week for our nation’s courts to use risk instead of cash to determine who we put behind bars,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute.

Meanwhile, the ACLU is urging Mr. Obama to immediately remove the box on federal job forms that asks whether an applicant has been convicted of a crime. The president this week praised private companies that have stopped asking such questions.

The ACLU also is pushing the president to commute “significantly more” sentences of nonviolent drug offenders. Mr. Obama this week commuted 46 such sentences, saying the punishments were far too harsh.

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