President Obama Urges Millennials to Act Against Black Criminal Justice


In his commencement address to the 148th Howard University graduating class on Saturday, President Barack Obama spoke about how Black Americans are disproportionately affected by mass incarceration. “We’ve got a justice gap when too many black boys and girls pass through a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails, the president said.  Reflecting on his own youth, he noted,  “When I was in college, about half a million people in America were behind bars.  Today, there are about 2.2 million.  Black men are about six times likelier to be in prison right now than white men.”


The president asked  graduates “How are you pressuring members of Congress to pass the criminal justice reform bill now pending before them?”


His remarks prompted several attendees to suggest reforms.  “Education is probably the biggest thing,” said Howard University graduate Khari Brown. “People don’t know a lot about the prison industrial complex and all of the other stuff that goes into fueling these prisons.”


Julia McPherson, another graduate agrees. “Definitely education would be the number one thing. I think every one should be aware of the prison system.”


During his tenure, former Attorney General Eric Holder brought attention to the issue of mass incarceration. In a 2013 speech he noted that since 1980 U.S. prison population rates more than quadrupled, meaning that one out of every 100 American adults was behind bars.  Holder also stated that the average inmate in minimum-security federal prison costs $21,000 each year. The average inmate in maximum-security federal prisons costs $33,000 each year.


“Exceptional growth in the size of our prison population was driven primarily by the war on drugs, a war that was declared in the 1970s by President Richard Nixon and which has increased under every president since, says legal scholar Michelle Alexander. She told PBS Frontline “It is a war that has targeted primarily nonviolent offenders and drug offenders, and it has resulted in the birth of a penal system unprecedented in world history.”


Brittany Packnett, a Black Lives Matter Movement activist, joined President Obama’s task force on 21st century policing to support criminal justice reform. “It was an opportunity to get community and activist ideas to end police violence on the record and in front of those directly responsible to make changes––police, unions and politicians, Packnett said.  She wants other millennials to know that the task force is a step towards progress.