The new HBO/Vice documentary on the criminal justice system and mass incarceration is being screened at the White House tonight, and President Obama just gave a speech introducing it in which he acknowledged something that politicians at the national level generally don't: that the federal government can't do all that much to reduce the country's massive prison population.
After praising the bipartisan coalition that has formed around criminal justice reform during the past several years, Obama threw a bit of cold water on how much the various pieces of national legislation that have been floated by lawmakers in Washington could actually accomplish. In order to make a significant impact, Obama said, "we need state’s attorneys and local prosecutors and sheriffs and [police] departments all across this country to internalize these issues as well, because the federal system is a small portion of our overall criminal justice system, and it’s not something that I can direct by fiat to change."
According to numbers released yesteday by the Department of Justice, the federal system holds just 13 percent of the 1.56 million people who are serving time in American prisons. The Department of Justice previously reported that local jails house an additional 744,600.
Obama's comments are also notable for his emphasis on prosecutors, whose role in sending people to prison for long periods of time is discussed a lot less than it ought to be.