Imagining a President Who Speaks 'Truth to Power' on Juvenile Justice

As President Obama prepares to make his State of the Union address, he received a dose of good news yesterday -- his approval ratings have hit 50% for the first time in over a year, a 10 percent rise since he hit a low of 40% in October. He has seen huge gains in his base, especially among younger voters (aged 18-29), Democrats and Hispanic voters. I'll leave it to the experts to say why he's had such a turnaround but for my money it's because he is finally leading, taking matters into his own hands and using his Executive Power to try to fulfill some of the promises he campaigned on all those years ago. In other words, he is being decisive instead of tossing up his hands and blaming a do-nothing Congress.

It's time for the President to be decisive on another issue that not only has support among his base but also among an increasingly vocal minority of conservative and libertarian Republicans. It is time for the President to speak out about "mass incarceration" and the way our criminal justice policies are devastating communities of color.

My primary interest is in juvenile justice. I recognize that the under 18 population makes up a relatively small portion of the adult corrections pie, but I'll leave it to others to write the rest of his speech. All I will say is that now is a good time to focus on juvenile crime, in part, because the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that juveniles are less culpable for their crimes than adults and because the states -- through both the courts and legislatures -- are beginning to revisit some of the failed polices of the 1990's super-predator era. Just yesterday, on the day we as a nation celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, announced that he was proposing sweeping changes to the state's longstanding policy of prosecuting juveniles as adults.

In today's online edition of The Marshall Project, I and other criminal justice "experts" were asked to play speechwriter for a day and to reimagine what President Obama's speech would be like if he spoke "truth to power" about crime and race. You can find my abbreviated remarks there, but here's the full text:

Obama: In 2014, I launched "My Brother's Keeper", an initiative to address persistent gaps faced by young people of color and ensure that all young people are able and willing to reach their full potential. But today, too many young people, especially youth of color, have little chance of reaching their potential because they are incarcerated or are serving excessively long prison sentences in the adult criminal justice system. Each year approximately 200,000 children under the age of 18 are being prosecuted and punished as adults.

The federal government is, in part, responsible for this situation. In the mid-1990s, we provided financial incentives to states to build correctional facilities and to implement "truth-in-sentencing," "mandatory minimums" and other policies that greatly increased the length of sentences of juveniles convicted in criminal court. Much of this was in response to dire predictions about a new breed of violent juvenile offender - the so called "superpredator" -- and an expected increase in juvenile violent crime as "superpredators" came of age. Today, we know that these predictions were wrong. The "super-predators" never arrived and instead of rising, juvenile violent crime dropped to record lows and has remained stable since.

It is time for the federal government to make juvenile justice a priority again. Today, I ask the 113th Congress to follow the bi-partisan lead of Senators Grassley and White House to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). We should also restore funding to the Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention. I also ask Congress to work with me to rectify our past mistakes by giving the states financial incentives to reduce, and eventually eliminate, their harmful reliance on prosecuting and punishing juveniles as adults and to develop alternatives to incarceration and new sentencing schemes for youthful offenders that recognize what we all know to be true -- that juveniles are less culpable for their crimes than adults and more amenable to rehabilitation.

Nelson Mandela once said that "there can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children." If we, the American people are to be "our brothers' and sisters' keepers," we must be prepared to assist and reclaim all of God's children, even the "least among us," including those who have broken our laws.