Barack Obama called HBO series "The Wire" "one of the greatest pieces of art in the last couple of decades" in an interview with the show's creator that was released today at the Bipartisan Summit for Criminal Justice Reform. "The Wire" chronicled the effects of the drug war as it was waged on the streets of Baltimore in the early 2000s, detailing how both drug use and the clumsy, heavy-handed law enforcement response to it devastated many urban communities.
As Simon summed it up, "what drugs don't destroy, the war against them is ripping apart."
Interestingly, Obama spoke of the incarceration problem as much from an economic perspective as from a social justice one. "The challenge," he said, "is folks go into prison at great expense to the state, [and] many times [are] trained to become more hardened criminals while in prison, come out and are basically unemployable and end up looping back in" to the prison system.
"When you break down why people aren't getting back into the labor force, even as jobs are being created, a big chunk of that is the young male population with felony histories," Obama said. "So now where we have the opportunity to give them a pathway toward a responsible life, they're foreclosed. And that's counterproductive."
Fiscally speaking, mass incarceration is "breaking the bank," Obama said. "It means everyone's taxes are going up, and services are being squeezed." Many elements in the Republican party have become receptive to these message in recent years. But in the Senate especially there remains a hardline of lawmakers who cut their political teeth during the tough-on-crime era and who remain enthusiastic proponents of harsh sentences for drug offenders, despite reams of evidence showing they don't work.
The Justice Department under Obama deserves a great deal of credit for taking administrative steps to reduce the burden of incarceration, including modest sentencing changes and an explicit hands-off approach to the states that have legalized marijuana. But as Obama notes in the interview, the real work of reform will have to be done through Congress.