This week, President Obama sat down with six inmates in Oklahoma, becoming the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. Coming just days after he announced that he would commute -- or end early -- the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders, it's clear that he has criminal justice reform on the mind.
So MTV News decided to reach out to experts in criminal justice -- Eric Sterling, President of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and Ann Jacobs, Director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute -- to help break down why we need prison reform and what it all means for the one in 99 adults living behind bars in the United States.
We're arresting A LOT of people and keeping them in jail for a long time.Getty
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the United States hosts 25 percent of the world's prison population -- while only making up 5 percent of the world's population. Our country arrests people at four times the rate that China does, and Sterling says a large part of that is the focus on prosecuting non-violent drug-offenders to the fullest extent of the law (even if it doesn't fit the crime.)
"A hundred-thousand people are serving kingpin sentences in prison for small-time drug charges," Sterling told MTV News. "The system is broken because it’s not just."
We're wasting time, energy and resources on small-time offenders.Getty
"This system is broken because it targets the wrong people," Sterling said. "Federal cases are supposed to be meant for the big guys."
Sterling added that the offenders the justice department has focused on are those involved in cases with an "amount of drugs that would fit in a lunch bag or a backpack." Focusing all our time, energy and money on getting these little guys, he said, means that we're wasting the opportunity to go after the higher-level offenders.
People of color are disproportionately affected.
In federal drug cases each year, Sterling said, only 1 out every 4 defendants are white (in a country that is roughly "80 percent white over-all.") He said that the treatment of people of color in the criminal justice system -- particularly in terms of drug investigations -- is a throw-back to Jim Crow-era policing by restricting travel, job and life opportunities.
"It’s all about race," Jacobs told MTV News. "It goes directly back to slavery: It is all about a lack of commitment to equity and equity of opportunity and to using people to produce an economic benefit for others without equipping them to economically benefit themselves."
Young people of color are especially vulnerable.
Sterling says that our justice system's "zero tolerance policies" further contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline because they push the youth they call "at risk" out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system, often for minor infractions.
"It helps maintain white privilege," Sterling said. "It puts a black face on the drug problem, even though white kids use illegal drugs about three times more often than black kids."
"It's difference in enforcement, not behavior," Jacobs adds. "Kids are loitering in low-income areas, kids are loitering in the suburbs -- but they don’t end up with an arrest record for it."
And no one is really being rehabilitated.Getty
In American prisons, Sterling said, prisoners aren't able to focus on how they can be better when they get back on the outside, which means they are way more likely to end up back in the system. The ones who are able to keep from being arrested again then face the struggles and discrimination of being a former-convict -- preventing them from ever really being free.
"One of the ways the system is broken is that there’s no period at the end of a [prison] sentence," Sterling said. "Even if you get out of jail or never go to jail, you still have record. A criminal sentence lasts for your whole life."
But, here's what you can do.
Sterling and Jacobs agreed that the momentum for change in criminal justice reform is going to come from young people and that those who are passionate about this reform need to use their voice: Get involved in activism and lobbying and make it clear that you care about this issue, join or form Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) chapters at your school and, when you're old enough, vote in local elections.
"The most outrageous thing for students is that this whole war on drugs is being fought in their name," Sterling said. "...Young people have the chance to say 'Not in my name. Don’t throw these lives away. I’m not going to stand for it any longer.'"
For More Information On The 'Prison Crisis' And Ways To Get Involved, Visit ACLU.org