Obama calls for criminal justice reform in system ‘skewed by race and wealth’

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at the NAACP's annual convention in Philadelphia July 14, 2015 (Reuters / Kevin Lamarque)
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.”

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.

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.

READ MORE: Rand Paul calls for criminal justice reform in speech at historically black college

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.