Obama calls for criminal justice system reform

President Obama made the case for swift reforms to the country’s criminal justice system on Tuesday, calling on Congress to pass legislation to improve the nation’s sentencing laws, particularly those affecting minorities.

“In so many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime,” Obama said at the NAACP’s annual national convention in Philadelphia, noting the government spends billions on unwanted incarcerations. 

“Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it,” he said. 

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The president said the statistics cannot be ignored: The U.S. accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population yet houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, putting its incarceration rate four-times higher than China’s. African-Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately affected, he noted.

Obama called for investments in alternatives, such as drug courts and lowering or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, as well as making more investments in youths.

The president voiced support for banning a box on job applications for convicted felons and said those who have served time and paid their debts to society “should be able to vote.”

He called for investments in community policing programs that he has championed in recent months as well, following several high-profile deaths of black men involving police. 

“We’ve got to invest in opportunity more than ever,” Obama said. 

The president’s speech was part of a renewed White House push this week for Congress to reform the nation’s criminal justice system. On Monday, he commuted the sentences of 46 people in federal prison, and on Thursday he will become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.

Before his speech, Obama briefly met with formerly incarcerated individuals in Philadelphia, who shared their stories of reintegration and efforts to help others in similar situations, including youths. 

He hailed Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate, for his efforts on behalf of criminal justice reform.  

“To his credit, he’s been consistent on this issue,” Obama said.  

The president also highlighted the partnership of odd bedfellows who have come together to work on criminal justice reform: Van Jones and Newt Gingrich, the NAACP and the Koch brothers. 

“You’ve got to give them credit, you’ve got to call it like you see it,” Obama said.  

“There’s momentum building for reform,” he added later.  

Separately, a bipartisan group of lawmakers met in Washington on Tuesday afternoon to discuss a path forward on criminal justice reform, which Obama praised in his speech. 

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) predicted movement on legislation in the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying that Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) “has been a very, very constructive chairman” during the process. 

“The president has very been engaged for some time on the need for criminal justice reform,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said at a panel hosted by the Coalition for Public Safety and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute.  

“Virtually all of the people incarcerated in our prisons will eventually, someday, be released,” Obama said, echoing remarks from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) in Washington in a call for a focus on prisoner rehabilitation.  

“This is not about pampering,” Lee said of potential approaches. 

“It has become a self-inflected wound that we have to begin to heal,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said on the panel, alluding to the need to get U.S. incarceration rates in check.  

“We have to start expanding our vision of what nonviolent crime is,” Booker added, mentioning the need to look at other circumstances affecting one’s path to prison.  

Booker said the United States has a “caste system” disproportionately affecting blacks and Hispanics. 

“Criminal justice reform is not just a policy urgency,” Booker said. “For many communities, it’s a matter of life and death.” 

On Tuesday, a bipartisan coalition in the House was also launched to focus on educating the public and members of Congress about crime, rehabilitation and prison reform. 

Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) were announced as co-chairmen of the Congressional Criminal Justice and Public Safety Caucus.