Ben Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, appeared on Current TV's "Viewpoint" Tuesday night to explain why he and 174 other celebrities and activists signed an open letter sent to President Barack Obama this week urging him to take decisive action on drug war reforms.
"For about 40 years, we've decided that [prison] is how we solve almost every problem, whether it's homelessness or drug addiction," he said. "We've gotten to a place where black men in this country are three times more likely to be incarcerated than black men in South Africa during apartheid when they were the world's leading [jailer]."
"So not only have we taken over this spot, quite frankly the last two countries that held it no longer exist -- the Soviet Union and the former South African republic -- we've taken it to a whole other level because we decided that incarceration was a panacea," Jealous continued. "What we now know is, for instance, for drug addicts, rehabilitation is seven times more effective dollar for dollar than incarceration."
The letter that Jealous and the NAACP signed -- joined by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the Drug Policy Alliance, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and a litany of celebrities, such as Will Smith, Scarlett Johannson, Jim Carrey, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock and Mark Walhberg -- urges Obama to take action on sentencing reforms and calls for him to support new legislation that would let judges set aside mandatory minimum sentences in certain cases.
"The greatest victims of the prison industrial complex are our nation’s children. Hundreds of thousands of children have lost a parent to long prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses, leaving these children to fend for themselves," the letter explains. "Many of these children end up in the criminal justice system, which comes as no surprise as studies have shown the link between incarceration and broken families, juvenile delinquency, violence and poverty."
The president has been largely absent on these issues, apart from supporting the Fair Sentencing Act, which brought punishments for crack and cocaine into parity. Jealous said that he felt like Obama may be more focused on domestic issues like drug reform now that his first term is out of the way and he's got more political capital to spend. "On a lot of issues, the hope really lies in the second term," he said.
This video is from Current TV's "Viewpoint," aired Tuesday, April 9, 2013.