In a candid conversation with the creator of HBO's hit series The Wire, President Obama took a deep dive into what he says is a sustained effort to change the criminal justice system from the inside.
"A consequence of [the War on Drugs] was this massive trend towards incarceration, even towards non-violent drug offenders," Obama told creator David Simon in a video posted on the White House’s YouTube channel. "You’ve got entire generations of men being locked up. Which means an entire generation of boys growing up, either without a father, or if they’re seeing their dad, they’re seeing him in prison."
Obama also let on that The Wire is his favorite show, and that ruthless murderer and robber Omar Little is his favorite character.
The Wire is broadly considered one of the best series to ever air on television. Using the drug-ridden city of Baltimore as a backdrop, the series picks apart how bad drug policy, from national to local levels, has affected generations of mostly minorities within the inner city, affecting everything from the educational system to the normalcy of having a nuclear family.
"If this [drug war] was draconian and it worked, then maybe we can have this discussion that what we're doing is working," Simon commented to Obama about strict sentencing policies that have driven up incarceration rates, even as violent crimes have gone down in virtually every major U.S. city.
"But it doesn’t work," he said. "It’s draconian and it doesn’t work."
"People thought they could arrest their way out of the drug problem, and they actually tried to do that," said Simon. "I watched the [Baltimore] police department… They stopped doing police work. They were arresting people for drugs and that was presumptive police work, but actually it wasn’t."
"The challenge, which you depict in your show is that folks go in at great expense to the state, many times trained to become more hardened criminals while they are in prison, come out and are basically unemployable. And end up looping back in," said Obama.
Obama said that he and Attorney General Eric Holder have been thinking about reversing some of the worst parts of the drug war since he came into office in 2009.
"One of the things we tried to do was change how we talk to US attorneys and their offices about 'what is a measure of effective prosecution?' And when we came into office, what was probably true in a lot of states attorneys offices, is ‘how much time do you get?’ Charge the max. And our point was, effectiveness as a prosecutor involves thinking about justice and being proportional in how you think about these issues," said Obama.
He added that some things can be done administratively, like when Holder announced in 2013 that the Department of Justice was revamping its mandatory drug sentencing policy. "When applied indiscriminately, [mandatory sentences] do not serve public safety," said Holder at the time. "Low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences."
However, at some point a systemic change would have to be legislated, argued Obama.
"We’re all responsible for at least finding a solution to this," said Obama, adding that he thinks there is a growing acknowledgement from both left and right that the status quo is no longer sustainable. "From a fiscal perspective it’s breaking the bank. You end up spending so much more on prison than you would with these kids being in school or going to college that it’s counterproductive," he said.
In addition to changing sentencing guidelines and the way that prosecutors approach their cases, Obama said that "environmental" issues need to be addressed.
"What we understand and perhaps one of the most moving sections of The Wire was that whole depiction of the schools in Baltimore and public schools, is that if kids are left so far behind that they don’t have recourse, they’re gonna see what else is available to survive," said Obama.
"They’re gonna learn," interrupted Simon.
"They’re gonna learn something," said Obama.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.