In a broad, sometimes rousing speech, President Obama on Tuesday laid out an ambitious road map for re-imagining America’s criminal justice system, saying the present system is "particularly skewed by race and by wealth," and not only costly to taxpayers, but to society as a whole.
"In too many cases, our criminal justice system ends up being a pipeline from underfunded, inadequate schools to overcrowded jails," Obama told more than 3,000 audience members at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia, adding that America is the world’s leading jailer and spends about $80 billion a year to incarcerate people. “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off and we need to do something about it.”
Obama has embarked on something of a criminal justice parade this week, book-ended by an announcement on Monday that he’d commuted the sentences of 46 prisoners serving long sentences for non-violent drug offenses, and a scheduled visit to a federal prison in Oklahoma on Thursday to discuss criminal justice reforms with law enforcement officials and inmates. Thursday’s trip will mark the first time a sitting president has visited a federal prison.
The president’s commutations this week brought his total number of commutations to 89, a ramp up from his first term and more aggressive use of the power than any of his predecessors. But it’s also whom he chose to commute that is groundbreaking. While prior use of the presidential power to pardon and commute sentences was almost wholly used to free political friends and wealthy whites, Obama has offered commutations almost exclusively to release people convicted of non-violent drug offenses.
“In too many cases, our criminal justice system ends up being a pipeline from underfunded, inadequate schools to overcrowded jails."'
Many of the prisoners in his most recent wave of commutations were serving decades, some life terms, for such offenses. Had they been sentenced under current laws most of them would have served their time and been released by now.
On Tuesday, Obama reiterated what he described earlier in the week as a system that unfairly punished people, particularly poor people and people of color, noting that while many— including murderers, rapists and robbers — deserve to be behind bars, many others were simply swept up because of harsh mandatory minimum sentences.
"That is the real reason our prison population is so high," he said. Obama then urged greater investment in at-risk young people, the development of alternatives to incarceration, calls for greater trust between police and communities of color and stepped up efforts by folks on the front lines and in communities hit hardest by the justice system.
“Justice is making sure every young person knows that they are special and important and that their lives matter, not because they heard it in a hashtag but because they’ve heard it every single day,” Obama said.
The president’s recent efforts to reshape the criminal justice system are boosted by a wave of bipartisan momentum to dial back mass-incarceration in America, a holdover from the so-called War on Drugs of decades past.
“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.”
The White House has been active during the president’s second term on the criminal justice reform front. Those efforts include new charging and sentencing guidelines by the Justice Department, the encouragement of diversion programs and drug courts, a requirement that federal agents videotape all interrogations to ensure suspects’ civil rights and updated guidance on profiling that expanded prohibitions on the use of religion, gender and sexual orientation.
The administration has also worked to bolster both support for state and local law enforcement agencies and reentry programs for formerly incarcerated people.
“Across the political spectrum, there is a growing consensus to make reforms to the juvenile and criminal justice systems to ensure that criminal laws are enforced more fairly and efficiently,” the White House said in a statement ahead of Obama’s speech. “Unwarranted disparities and unduly harsh sentences undermine trust in the rule of law and offend the basic principles of fairness and justice. In an era of limited resources and diverse threats, there is a public safety imperative to devote the resources of the criminal justice system to the practices that are most successful at deterring crime and protecting the public.”
The White House credited the administration’s efforts in part with a historic drop in the federal prison population For the first time in 40 years, both the federal inmate population and the nationwide crime rate have fallen simultaneously. In his speech, Obama said formerly incarcerated people should be given opportunities to live productive lives, unencumbered by boxes they must check on job applications. They should be able to vote after serving their debt to society.
“While people in our prisons have made some mistakes, and sometimes big mistakes, they are also Americans and we have to make sure that as they do their time that we are increasing the possibility that they can turn their lives around. Justice and redemption go hand in hand,” Obama said. "Don't just tag them as future criminals. Reach out to them as future citizens."