02/12/2013 06:14 pm ET

Voting Rights, Prison Reform, Other Issues Should Be Tackled At State Of The Union, Advocates Say

By Sean J. Miller, TakePart

The White House has been aggressively previewing President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, revealing so many of the speech’s broad strokes and narrative themes that the real thing may come off as a replay—but with important parts left out.

Obama is expected to promise that somewhere near half the 66,000 U.S. troops left in Afghanistan will be coming home in about a year. The economy and jobs will presumably eat up some time; so will the budget “sequestration.” And with Hadiya Pendleton’s family and the families of the victims of the Newtown school shooting expected in the gallery, gun control will also be on the agenda.

What about other pressing concerns—such as voting rights, the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act or prison sentencing reform? Advocates aren’t holding their collective breathes that their issues will receive air time Tuesday evening.

The president has acknowledged the problems that voters faced last November and declared, “we have to fix that.”

Civil rights groups such as the Advancement Project and the NAACP are pushing for federal legislation that will incentivize state-level policies such as same-day voter registration and early voting. Advocates say voter rights efforts could get a major boost if the president touts the cause on Tuesday night. But Rashad Robinson, executive director of, an online civil rights group, says he’ll be surprised by anything beyond generalities.

“I’m not expecting anything detailed,” he tells TakePart. “I’d like to hear support for Election Day registration or real campaign finance reform—support for a movement to overturn Citizens United. I’d love to hear a push for [remedying] the kind of inequality we have in voting lines. That’s something that is still top of mind for people after coming out of this election with incredibly long voting lines.”

Violence Against Women Act

The House of Representatives’ inability to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) despite bipartisan support in the Senate is symbolic of how divisive politics is a barrier to formulating effective public policy in Washington.

The Senate voted 78 to 22 for reauthorizing yet another iteration of the bill just hours before Obama’s scheduled Tuesday night start time. That’s exactly what Debby Tucker, executive director of the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, had hoped would happen.

“What I’d love is for him to be thanking the Senate for getting their ducks in a row,” Tucker tells TakePart. “They need to pass it. It’s going to be more uphill in the House.”

Obama and Vice President Biden are supporters of the bill, but Tucker says she’s not expecting the president to address its status in his speech. “I don't have a specific expectation,” she says, adding: “I find it astonishing that this [Congress’s failure to reauthorize VAWA] has happened.”

Prison Sentencing Reform

Obama supported the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 and the 2011 retroactive changes to the federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine, which have helped stem the growth of America’s prison population.

But Obama’s support for sentencing reform may be curbed by a new push by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to increase minimum sentences for gun crimes. At least that’s the concern of Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

“I’m afraid if he says anything [about sentencing reform] it’ll be about what’s going on in Chicago,” Stewart tells TakePart.

In the wake of more than 500 gun deaths in Chicago last year, Emanuel, Obama’s former White House chief of staff, is backing an effort to increase minimum sentences for some gun violations to three years in prison.

“We don’t believe in mandatory minimums," says Stewart.

“What I wish [Obama] would say is that we have too many people in prison and we have to do something about it,” she adds. “But I really don’t anticipate him saying much about criminal justice in the way we want to hear it.”

This story originally appeared on TakePart.



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