This column by ACRU Senior Fellow Robert Knight was published July 19, 2015 by The Washington Times.
President Obama made the first visit by a sitting president to a penitentiary when he dropped in to the El Reno (Oklahoma) Federal Correctional Institution on Thursday and offered an ambitious reform agenda.
The last time we saw prison inmates get this kind of celebrity attention was back in 1969, when a visiting Johnny Cash blasted California’s San Quentin Prison, singing, “May all the world forget you ever stood. And may all the world regret you did no good.”
Unlike his confessional song “Folsom Prison Blues,” Mr. Cash’s “San Quentin” condemned the system, assigning no blame whatever to convicts for their miserable plight.
Incidentally, Cash played his very first prison concert at San Quentin in 1958, inspiring 20-year-old inmate Merle Haggard to straighten out and pursue a country music career. Perhaps Mr. Obama’s visit the other day similarly inspired a future politician or two.
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama gave a lengthy speech to the NAACP’s annual convention in Philadelphia, outlining a series of prison reforms. Some have bipartisan support, such as reducing overcrowding, gang activity, solitary confinement and rape. Also, shortening sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and stepping up rehab and preventative services.
On its face, Mr. Obama’s concern for prisoners is refreshing and even biblical, as we are reminded in Hebrews 13:3: “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners.”
On the other hand, it’s one more opportunity to show the world that the United States is still a racist country that needs fundamental transformation.
Mr. Obama’s concern would be more touching if he declined to play the race card. Again and again, he noted that blacks and other racial minorities are overrepresented in the prison population, neglecting to acknowledge that this, sadly, mirrors the crime statistics.
Citing the $80 billion spent annually on prisons, Mr. Obama said that money could instead be used to “provide universal preschool for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in America; double the salary of every high school teacher in America; finance new roads, bridges and airports, job-training programs, research and development; eliminate tuition at every one of our public colleges and universities.”
Well, that certainly buys the votes of child care givers, teachers unions, college freebie students and public employees. But it won’t rebuild our crime-ridden cities. And some money would still be spent on prisons, since men are not angels.
The real problem is the collapse of the inner-city family, accelerated by Great Society welfare dependency policies still backed by Mr. Obama. Husbands and fathers were replaced with government checks in single-parent households. No massive preschool program will undo that kind of damage. The government, it turns out, makes a lousy mother or father. A direct result has been the increase of America’s inmate population from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million today.
Mr. Obama’s answer to the urban calamity that his party’s policies have exacerbated is to offer yet more programs, not rescind policies that discourage natural family formation.
Almost unnoticed amid Mr. Obama’s long list of prison reforms was his call to restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences. This makes perfect political sense, since felons overwhelmingly vote Democrat, and the party has been working to expand the electorate by any means — even to noncitizens, as one New York poll suggested.
Speaking of extending the franchise, Mr. Obama himself broadly asserted that inmates “are also Americans.” Well, most of them. Crunching several studies, Heritage Foundation expert Hans von Spakovsky wrote that, “criminal aliens already represent more than a quarter of all of the prisoners in federal prisons and are present in large numbers in state and local jails.”
Two progressive states — Maine and Vermont — actually allow felons to vote in prison. In 13 states plus the District of Columbia, felons may vote upon release. A few states permanently bar felons from voting even after release, parole and probation. In others, different conditions apply, depending on the offense. In 40 states, inmates serving time only for misdemeanors can vote by absentee ballot, according to ProCon.org.
In Virginia, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order in April 2014 restoring some felon voting rights and easing restrictions. Drug crimes were removed from the list of permanently banned offenders, and the waiting period for restoring voting rights to violent felons was reduced from five to three years.
Last month, Mr. McAuliffe, who was once the bag man for the Clintons, announced that people who owe court costs and fees will no longer be barred from voting. He made the change at the behest of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Virginia chapter, which will “push for a 2018 voter referendum to strip the voting ban [on felons] from the state’s constitution. The group supports the right to vote regardless of [criminal] convictions,” according to the Daily Press.
Like the ACLU, Mr. Obama wants to allow more felons to vote, amnesty for illegal aliens, an end to voter ID laws, and to forbid requiring proof of U.S. citizenship to register to vote.
If that sounds like a criminal way to expand the electorate, that’s because it is.