In a speech to the annual convention of the NAACP in Philadelphia on Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama made the case for criminal justice reform that, at its most noteworthy points, candidly addressed the effects of overpolicing, the scourge of mass incarceration, and the impact of institutional racism.
"In recent years, the eyes of more Americans have been opened to this truth. Partly because of cameras, partly because of tragedy, partly because the statistics cannot be ignored," Obama said of the U.S. justice system, referencing recent high-profile killings of black men and women by police or as a result of their treatment in prison. "We cannot close our eyes anymore, and the good news, and this is truly good news, is that good people of all political persuasions are starting to think that we need to do something about this."
The speech comes shortly after Obama commuted the sentences of dozens of nonviolent prisoners serving life sentences for drug offenses. On Thursday, the president will visit a federal prison in Oklahoma, where he is expected to speak again on the impacts of mass incarceration. It will be the first time that a president has spoken from a prison during their tenure.
In his speech on Tuesday, he said of the draconian sentences imposed on nonviolent offenders and the widespread effects of policies such as mandatory minimums:
In far too many cases the punishment simply does not fit the crime. If you are a low-level drug dealer or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society. You have to be held accountable and make amends. But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence. That’s disproportionate to the price that should be paid. And by the way the taxpayers are picking up the tab for that price.
Every year we spend $80 billion dollars to keep folks incarcerated. Eighty billion. Now to put that in perspective: for $80 billion dollars we could have universal preschool for every three-year-old and four-year-old in America. That’s what $80 billion dollars buys. For $80 billion dollars, we could double the salary of every high school teacher in America. For $80 billion, we could finance new roads and new bridges and new airports, job training programs, and research and development.
"Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it," Obama said.
In one moment, Obama broke the news that he had asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch to launch an investigation into the use of solitary confinement—a remark that prompted a round of applause from the audience of 3,300.
Locking away "so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time... is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger," he said. "Our prisons should be a place where we can train people for skills that can help them find a job, not train them to become more hardened criminals."
Reforms are necessary inside prison and out, he said. That includes reduced sentences for inmates who participate in programs to reduce recidivism; job training for inmates; expanded opportunities for those who are released; a ban on the portions of job applications, also known as "the box," which require applicants to state if they've ever been convicted of a felony; and—in one of the most groundbreaking calls in the speech—reinstating voting rights for those who serve their time.
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That, too, prompted loud applause from the audience.
Roughly four million people in the U.S. cannot vote because of their criminal records, despite no longer being incarcerated.
At another point in his speech, Obama spoke of the sky-high racial disparities seen in neighborhood policing tactics, sentencing trends, and other aspects of criminal justice:
And then of course there are the costs that cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Because the statistics on who gets incarcerated show that by a large margin, it disproportionately impacts communities of color. African Americans and Latinos make up 30 percent of our population; they make up 60 percent of our inmates…. 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.
It's not only the justice system that needs reform, he said—prison conditions the likes of which exist in some U.S. facilities "have no place in any civilized country."
"We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison, we should not be tolerating gang activity in prison, we should not be tolerating rape in prison, and we shouldn't be making jokes about it in our popular culture," he said.
Andrew Cohen, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, said it was "undeniable" that Obama's speech on Tuesday "broke new ground.... [N]o sitting president has ever publicly spoken at such length and in such detail as Obama now has about the persistent problems of crime and punishment in this country."
And ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said that "President Obama deserves congratulations for confronting one of the greatest challenges facing American society, reforming our broken criminal justice system."
"But the president must take additional steps to build redemption into our criminal justice system, or this will only be a noteworthy speech that burnishes the president’s legacy," Romero said.
Such steps include, he said, commuting significantly more sentences for low-level offenders, "banning the box" on job applications, and "provide the hundreds of thousands of people behind bars in this country the opportunity to rejoin their communities, and become productive members of our society."