In a 45-minute speech at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia Tuesday, President Obama laid out a far-reaching roadmap for criminal justice reform, including calls for reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, reviewing the use of solitary confinement, and eliminating barriers to reentry for former prisoners.
The president has touched on many of the themes before, but the Philadelphia speech was the first time he tied them all together into a plan for action. The speech likely signals upcoming executive actions on criminal justice reform.
Obama recited the by now well-known statistics demonstrating American’s over-reliance on incarceration: America is home to 5% of world’s population but 25% of world’s prisons; that African Americans and Latinos make up 30% of the U.S. population, but 60% of American inmates; that one out of three black men are now likely to serve time in prison, among others.
While the United States has 2 ½ million people behind bars, only about 200,000 of them are in the federal prison system that Obama has the ability to impact. Of those, 98,000 are doing time for drug offenses.
He used those stats to bolster his case for broad criminal justice reform, calling the criminal justice system an “injustice system.”
“Any system that allows us to turn a blind-eye to hopelessness and despair, that’s not a justice system, that’s an injustice system,” Obama said. “Justice is not only the absence of oppression, it’s the presence of opportunity.”
Washington has seen limited criminal justice reform during the Obama years, particularly with legislation partially undoing the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity and later actions making it retroactive. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder signaled to federal prosecutors that they should move away from mandatory minimums, and the Obama administration has asked federal drug prisoners to seek sentence commutations.
At the convention, Obama also touted initiatives including the Department of Justice’s Smart on Crime program aimed at reducing the impact of our harsh laws, My Brother’s Keeper, and the Clemency Project.
The president commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders on Monday, and applications from some 30,000 more are in the pipeline.
Obama said the time was ripe for further reforms, citing bipartisan interest in the issue, and even mentioning the Koch Brothers and Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul as allies in the fight. They made “strange bedfellows” with Democrats and the NAACP, he said, but that’s what sometimes happens in politics.
“We’re at a moment when some good people in both parties, Republicans and Democrats, and folks all across the country are coming together around ideas to make the system work smarter. To make it work better and I’m determined to do my part, wherever I can,” Obama said a day earlier in announcing the sentence commutations.
On Thursday, Obama will continue his criminal justice-themed week with a visit to the federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma — the first visit ever to a federal prison by a sitting president. He is expected to meet with inmates there, and he told the NAACP crowd he met with four former prisoners — one white, one Latino, and two black — before taking to the podium there.