President Barack Obama is leading a drive for a fairer and more equitable criminal justice system. He wants a federal review of solitary confinement, voting rights restored to former felons, and Congress to pass a sentencing reform bill by year’s end.
“In far too many cases, the punishment simply doesn’t fit the
crime,” Obama told an audience of 3,300 at the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP)
convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday.
“If you are a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your
parole, you owe some debt to society. But you don’t owe 20 years.
You don’t owe a life sentence.”
“There’s a long history of inequity in the criminal justice
system in America” – President Obama at the NAACP convention
– Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery) July
President Obama, as part of his week-long campaign on criminal
justice reform, said America spends $80 billion a year to keep
2.2 million people incarcerated, adding that American taxpayers
pick up the tab for a criminal justice system that “remains
particularly skewed by race and by wealth.”
He said the criminal justice system disproportionately affects
communities of color, with African-Americans and Latinos making
up 30 percent of the general population, but accounting for 60
percent of the prison population. He said one in every 35
African-American men and one in every 88 Latino men is serving
time. Among white men, the number is one in 214.
“The bottom line is that in too many places, black boys and
black men, Latino boys and Latino men experience being treated
differently under the law,” he said.
He called for voting rights to be restored to felons who have
served their sentences, a ban on employers’ asking job candidates
about past convictions, and for the reduction or discarding of
mandatory minimum sentences.
– Breaking911 (@Breaking911) July
Most mandatory minimum sentencing laws are applied largely to
drug offences and require binding prisons terms of a specific
length, depriving judges of the ability to give lighter sentences
taking into consideration the circumstances of the crime. Such
laws have caused federal and state prison populations to soar,
leading to overcrowding, higher costs to taxpayers, and cuts to
law enforcement budgets.
Both Republicans and Democrats recognize that the criminal
justice system is in dire need of reform, and the White House is
backing a bipartisan bill that would slash mandatory minimum
sentences for non-violent offenders. The current proposal would
reduce mandatory life sentences to 20 years – effectively cutting
life sentences in half from the current average of 40 years.
Obama also said he had asked the attorney general to start a
review of the overuse of solitary confinement in prisons, where
inmates are held in a cell for 23 hours per day. He said social
science shows that this makes inmates more alienated, more
hostile and potentially more violent. He also advocated more job
training programs inside prison walls.
Obama told the NAACP audience that the $80 billion criminal
justice budget could be better spent on universal pre-school for
every three- and four-year-old, doubling teachers’ salaries,
eliminating tuition at public colleges and universities, job
training programs, research and development, and financing new
roads, bridges and airports. The suggestion was met by applause.
Obama’s speech was delivered a day after he commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug
offenders — the most commutations a president has issued on a
single day in at least four decades. Some offenders were serving
sentences that have undergone revision, and in some cases they
were serving a decade longer than someone who was convicted of
the same crime today. The majority of those receiving clemency
had been found guilty of crimes involving crack and cocaine,
while two involved marijuana cases. Tens of thousands of inmates
who have applied for clemency remain waiting, however.
Obama will visit the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution
outside Oklahoma City on Thursday, the first visit to a federal
prison by a sitting US president.