President Barack Obama sat down with The Wire creator David Simon for a thought-provoking conversation about criminal justice reform, our nation’s “bank-breaking” habit of incarcerating drug-related offenses and the challenges facing police. Obama, who says The Wire is “one of the greatest, not just television shows, but pieces of art in the last couple of decades,” spoke with Simon because his beloved HBO series showcased the impact the criminal justice system had on Baltimore.
Simon began his career as a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun before moving on to television. “The one thing that makes cities safer is competent retroactive investigation of felonies. That actually can make a city safer, but to do that you have to use and not be used by informants, you have to know how to testify in court, you have to write a search warrant that’s going to hold up,” Simon tells Obama.
“The good news is that the smarter police departments have started to figure this out, and we’ve seen a reduction in violent crime in most big cities in America, in some cases precipitously, partly because there was an awareness that we were so invested in street level drug transactions that we were losing focus on what was really important, which was people wanted to be safe,” Obama said. “On the other hand, what we know is a consequence of that was this massive trend toward incarceration.”
Obama also discusses a major flaw in the penal system – and a theme explored on The Wire – where small-time felons are incarcerated and are “trained to become more hardened criminals.” After their release from prison, these people are now “unemployable,” resulting in repeat offenses. “Nobody incarcerates their population at this level,” Simon says.
In one of the lighter moments in the intense conversation, Obama admits that Omar was his favorite character on The Wire.