President Obama’s Prison Visit and the Legacy of the Reagan Years

FCI El RenoFCI El Reno. (Photo: Federal Bureau of Prisons)

Today, for the first time in U.S. history, a sitting President will visit a federal prison, as President Obama meets with both law-enforcement officials and inmates at El Reno Federal Prison in Oklahoma. His visit is part of a larger White House initiative on criminal justice reform; this week the President commuted the sentences of forty-six drug offenders, and on Tuesday, his remarks at the NAACP annual convention in Philadelphia addressed America’s astoundingly high incarceration rate.

Obama’s speech included a recitation of some shocking, yet by now all-too-familiar facts and statistics: America has the world’s highest incarceration rate, four times higher than China’s. With five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. America has more of its citizens behind bars than the top thirty-five European countries combined, and perhaps most sobering, our prison population has more than quadrupled – from about 500,000 to 2.2 million – since 1980. While this crisis of incarceration is increasingly viewed as a national disgrace, it’s hardly inexplicable. This didn’t happen by accident, and 1980 is no arbitrary date.

While the term “Reagan Revolution” has always sounded a bit grandiose, Ronald Reagan’s presidency unquestionably marked a profound shift in America’s approach to crime and punishment, one that continued through the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The result has been an unprecedented explosion of America’s prison population, and a growing sense of crisis in American criminal justice.

Reagan, according to conventional wisdom, made Americans feel good again, after the tumultuous and confusing 1970s. It was “morning in America,” his re-election ads told the nation. But Reagan’s America, according to his own rhetoric, was a frightening place, filled with drug addicts and dealers, criminal predators, welfare cheats, and those who refused to take personal responsibility for their actions. Significantly, Reagan described the criminal threats to America’s safety and well being as located on society’s margins, especially inner city communities of color, while avoiding the use of overtly racialized language. It was single mothers on welfare and crack addicts, not corrupt white-collar types, who were a threat to the nation.

As befitting Reagan’s overall ideological orientation, the solutions to the country’s crime problems were “common sense” law-and-order ones, not complex sociological questions. At a speech before Interpol in 1985, Reagan referenced Belgian novelist Georges Simenon and his character Inspector Maigret, comparing the international “war on crime” to Maigret’s fictional pursuits. Reagan went on to quote Simenon, and in so doing, summed up his apparent view of crime as a social problem:

Georges Simenon has…said that sometimes ‘the truth is too simple for intellectuals.’ Well, we all remember a time when some elaborate theories excusing criminal wrongdoing were very fashionable, a time when there was a great loss of will in apprehending and bringing to justice professional wrongdoers. And now all of this is changing. Increasingly, the people of my own country and yours are coming to appreciate again the truth of old verities like: right and wrong do matter, individuals should be held accountable for their actions, and society has the right to be protected from those who prey on the innocent.

The simplicity and anti-intellectualism of this rhetoric became a central tenet of Reagan administration’s “get tough” approach to crime and its now-infamous War on Drugs, the centerpiece of the fight against crime. The administration’s rhetoric was backed by action, as massive increases of federal funding for drug law enforcement coincided with funding cuts for drug education and treatment. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 underscored the punitive, rather than treatment-based approach to drug addiction that would become a hallmark of the War on Drugs, enacting mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana and cocaine possession. The well-known disparity between sentencing minimums for powder and crack cocaine authorized in this bill are perhaps one of the most famous examples of the racial and class inequities embedded in the War on Drugs.

The Reagan administration’s approach to drug enforcement continued and even expanded under George H. W. Bush. Crime in general was a prominent feature of Bush’s election campaign and his attacks on his Democratic opponent, Governor Mike Dukakis of Massachusetts. Some of Bush’s ads merely contrasted his support for the death penalty with Dukakis’s opposition, but by far the most enduring images of that campaign were the so-called “Willy Horton” ads. Horton, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence in Massachusetts who committed rape, assault, and robbery after not returning from a weekend furlough, was said to be evidence of Dukakis’s weak-kneed approach to crime. The Horton ads attacked Dukakis for vetoing capital punishment and mandatory sentences for drug dealers, and for his supposed “revolving door prison policy” that allowed the Hortons of the world to wreak havoc.

In some ways, the 1992 presidential election was the key moment in the history of the move towards mass incarceration. Bill Clinton sought, with notable success, to wrest the crime issue away from the Republican Party by assuming a tough-on-crime stance of his own. This strategy proved politically popular, and in the 1990s the Reagan-style law-and-order approach became the bi-partisan mainstream. Clinton supported mandatory minimums and “three-strikes” laws, which generally lead to life in prison without parole after three convictions. Together these policies have produced a historic increase in the prison population, which includes an enormous number of non-violent drug offenders. Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, sponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden, which increased mandatory minimum sentences and provided funds for increased prison construction and additional police officers. The 1994 law has recently received some negative attention, as then-First Lady and current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has questioned the wisdom and efficacy of some of its provisions. But in the 1990s, the Clinton Administration counted its tough-on-crime reputation as a political and substantive success.

By the early years of this century, state and federal mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws had become commonplace, and the concept of criminal justice as rehabilitative, rather then merely punitive, seemed nearly abandoned. The ideology of the Reagan years had become deeply entrenched. And the result – 2.2 million Americans incarcerated, a disproportionate number of them people of color – is plain for all to see.

Recent evidence suggests that something of a reversal of our thirty-plus year trends is underway. President Obama’s NAACP speech this week and his visit to El Reno Federal Prison today will draw attention to issues of mass incarceration, prison overcrowding and privatization, over-use of solitary confinement, and racial disparities in law enforcement. Perhaps more important, criminal justice and prison reform are emerging as bi-partisan issues. The legacy of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years has left America in the unenviable position as the world’s leader in locking up our fellow citizens. But if Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul, and the Koch brothers can all agree that America needs immediate criminal justice reform, a significant piece of the Reagan Revolution may soon be dismantled.

About the Author

John W. Mackey

John Mackey is Senior Lecturer and Associate Chair of the Social Sciences Division of the College of General Studies at Boston University. He teaches courses in social theory, western and Chinese history, and American foreign policy. He is a contributing author of The Modernization of the Western World: A Society Transformed (2012).

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