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Opinion: A quiet milestone for criminal justice reform

Obama quietly marked an important milestone with the words “I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform.”
A prison cell block is seen following a tour by President Barack Obama at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., July 16, 2015.
A prison cell block is seen following a tour by President Barack Obama at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., July 16, 2015.

While millions of Americans sat in their homes listening to the president address the nation on Tuesday night, more than 2.4 million Americans sat behind bars.

Across a vast network of jails and prisons, millions of Americans cope with the consequences of past mistakes, many of them serving unnecessarily long sentences, and many of them wrestling with untreated mental health conditions and drug addiction – all reminders of just how broken our justice system is.

Far from those cells, President Obama stood before the nation to deliver his final State of the Union address, and with 15 words he quietly marked an important and easily overlooked milestone for justice: “I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform.”

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Brief and straightforward, the passage was embraced by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle – including some of his greatest critics – becoming the lead issue in a speech that will be remembered as one of his most important.

Republicans and Democrats applauding the president’s words affirmed what advocates have long known: There is no other policy issue as important and poised for action in 2016 as criminal justice reform, and while the road to reform still stretches many miles ahead, signs of hope are more visible than ever before.

“I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform.”'

Consider the progress in the last year alone.

Last year, congressional Republicans joined Democrats and the White House to make the case for reform, resulting in bipartisan legislation that would take a colossal step toward reducing our prison population. The legislation is closer than ever to the finish line – awaiting final action by congressional leaders – and has generated praise for efforts to address harsh mandatory sentencing practices, which have packed our prisons with more people than any other country in the world, branding the U.S. as the incarceration nation.

Doing his part, the president last year also used the presidential lectern to tell the stories of injustice in our system, visiting a federal prison in Oklahoma in July to hear the firsthand accounts of those caught in the crosshairs of a vicious prison cycle, and making the case that “justice is not only the absence of oppression, it’s the presence of opportunity.”

The same calls to action were echoed by national advocates of every stripe – faith leaders, law enforcement, civil rights groups, formerly incarcerated people, business leaders – to not only reduce the prison population through sentencing changes, but to also advocate for programs expanding opportunities for people to successfully re-enter society, access employment, housing, education – fundamental to avoiding incarceration once more.

Last year we saw lawmakers across the country pursue prison and re-entry reforms in statehouses and mayors offices, and we even heard presidential candidates from both sides of the aisle make the case on the campaign trail that the time for reform has come.

Organizations like ours locked arms with allies old and new, standing alongside groups that have never stood together before and who are almost always at odds on every issue. We launched an unprecedented $50 million Campaign for Smart Justice, building on ACLU’s 100-year legacy of fighting to preserve the rights of people – especially those caught in the crosshairs of the justice system. We committed to expand on our work through this campaign by taking the fight for reform to the people in 2016 through a series of direct voter ballot initiatives in states with some of the highest incarceration rates in the world.

Our campaign – much like the work of the many diverse advocates and leaders who joined the efforts for reform last year – knows that to substantially reduce the prison population we must not only reform sentencing practices but also invest in policies that promote crime prevention, rehabilitation, and strengthen communities across the nation.

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The progress made last year is extraordinary. And while we’re far from finished, many of us know there is no other issue that has simultaneously charted as much progress, generated as much bipartisan support, impacts as many communities, and is as poised for action this year as criminal justice reform.

Support for reform has touched nearly every community.

The two of us, for example, come from very different worlds. One of us, an actor-turned-advocate who has seen the devastation – both on screen and off – of a system addicted to incarceration, and the other, an attorney-turned-advocate who has made it her life’s work to bring reform to communities across the country.

We work and live in very different worlds, and may be motivated by very different experiences. But despite those differences, our goals are the same.

When Obama stood before that joint session of Congress, we saw a moment – albeit, a brief moment – when the president and his greatest critics were on the same team. When their goals were also the same.

With just 15 unremarkable and easily forgotten words, the president reminded the nation that criminal justice reform is poised for action.

In response, several hundred lawmakers reinforced his reminder, signaling to the nation that criminal justice reform is actually within reach. Because of that, it must be one of the most important policy priorities for Washington this year.

Michael K. Williams is an actor and the ACLU ambassador for ending mass incarceration. Alison Holcomb is the Director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.