In June 2015, I was part of a group of civil rights and religious leaders, scholars, elected officials, law enforcement officials and foundation officers brought together for a strategic planning initiative hosted by the George Washington University Law School. The day culminated with an invitation to join members of the Obama administration’s domestic policy staff for a discussion. As each of my colleagues received a green pass granting them immediate access, I received a pink ID bearing the label: “Needs Escort.” The stigma of my conviction bore down on me like a ton of bricks.
The following week, the Wall Street Journal reported on an open letter I wrote to President Obama expressing my intense disappointment at having been subjected to “special treatment” and humbly asking for the opportunity to meet with him. That meeting did take place, and from it flowed other meetings between myself and other formerly incarcerated leaders, and members of the Obama administration.
President Obama didn’t just listen. He heard us. During his eight years in office, President Obama did what no other sitting president has ever done: He chipped away at the stigma that those of us who have been through the criminal justice system—70 million of us and counting—carry on our shoulders like dead weight. True, there is much left to be done to bring the era of mass incarceration to an end. But in the field of criminal justice reform Obama took on the difficult “task of government,” that is, “to make incremental improvements or try to steer the ocean liner two degrees North or South so that 10 years from now, we’re in a very different place than we were.”
Although stymied by congressional gridlock and unable to make headway in passing reform legislation, the president used his executive power to turn the ocean liner a few degrees in the direction of progress. Here’s a partial list of some of the groundbreaking things that happened on his watch:
• He very publicly visited a federal prison and met with people serving time—the first sitting president ever to do so.
• He commuted the sentences of more people than the previous 10 presidents combined—673 men and women as of this writing.
• He established the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program allowing incarcerated people to once again receive Pell Grants to pursue college degrees.
• He issued an Executive Order “banning the box” on applications for federal jobs so that formerly incarcerated people would have a better shot at gainful employment.
• He released new HUD guidelines informing landlords that because people of color were over-represented among those with criminal records, denying housing on the basis of a criminal record would be considered a violation of the Fair Housing Act.
• He banned solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prisons.
Did President Obama do everything I would have liked? Of course not. He continued to rhetorically throw most people in the system under the bus by dividing us into the misleading binary categories of “violent” versus “nonviolent” when people convicted of crimes defined as “violent” have as much capacity for rehabilitation and redemption as anyone else. He also could have bridged some of the country’s racial divide by explaining how our overly punitive criminal justice system is also destroying the lives of poor white Americans whose incarceration rate is actually increasing. Yet his contributions clearly outweigh his deficits.
Most of all, President Obama gave formerly incarcerated leaders a seat at the policy table. President Obama has empowered us to begin a process of healing, not only for ourselves, but for our families, our communities and the country as a whole. Our input has led to the creation and support of important new constituencies in the movement to end mass incarceration.
Close to 70 colleges will be accepting incarcerated students this year because of the Second Chance Pell program, creating linkages between people in prison and the academic world. Because of federal funding there are now hundreds of re-entry programs throughout the country, connecting the men and women coming out of prison with service providers and to job, education, housing and other opportunities. These are two-way relationships that will have the exponential effect of involving more and more people and gradually diminishing the stigma of a criminal conviction.
Today we are in a different place because President Obama listened. That might not seem like much, but if you, like me, are a member of a group that has been marginalized and rendered silenced, it’s huge. I was fortunate to have experienced the president’s capacity to listen on a very personal level.
Nobody knows what the next administration will do about criminal justice reform. But one thing I do know is that the foundation built by Barack Obama, our first African-American president, will not easily be expunged. The movement to defend those gains and to keep on moving grows stronger every day. Join us!
Glenn E. Martin is the President and Founder of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), an organization dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030. He is part of the vanguard of advocates working to make that future a reality. His goal is to amplify the voice of the people most impacted and to position them as reform leaders.