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Obama Unveils Plans for Aggressive Criminal Justice Reforms

By Hazel Trice Edney

Vision Cover Obama prison_corridor

President Barack Obama walks in the Residential Drug Abuse Prevention Unit at El Reno Prison in El Reno, Okla. PHOTO: Pete Souza/White House

(TriceEdneyWire.com) – For the $80 billion that America spends annually to keep people incarcerated, the nation could have universal preschool for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in America; could double the salary of every high school teacher; could finance new roads, bridges, airports, job training programs, research and development.

This according to President Barack Obama. In a speech to the NAACP’s Annual Convention in Philadelphia last week, he called for criminal justice reforms that would bring an end to the extreme spending by reducing mass incarceration.

With the U. S. being home to “5 percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of the world’s prisoners,” the president described the issue as an “aspect of American life that remains particularly skewed by race and by wealth. Heavy on statistics, he laid out his case before ticking off a string of criminal justice reform that he would like to see in place before leaving office.

With 2.2 million people behind bars in America, he said, “There’s a long history of inequity in the criminal justice system in America.”

Obama conceded that in recent years, more Americans have come to realize the level of racism in the criminal justice system due to cameras and statistics “cannot be ignored.”

Despite violent criminals that need to be in prison, he said his administration has succeeded in steps to reduce the federal prison population. They included “the 100-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine” and the commutation of the sentences of “dozens of people sentenced under old drug laws that we now recognize were unfair.”

But this is not nearly enough, he said, listing other policies for which he will push. They include:

Shorter sentences for low-level drug dealers.

Reduced sentences for prisoners who complete programs that make them less likely to commit a repeat offense.

Innovative new approaches to link former prisoners with employers and help them stay on track with good jobs.

“Ban the Box” on job applications that ask about incarceration histories “so that former prisoners who have done their time and are now trying to get straight with society have a decent shot in a job interview.”

The right to vote upon reentry to society for people who have served their time.

Of course, most, if not all of these proposals must also be vetted and approved by Congress. But, the President said he is hopeful; especially given that some of them have “bipartisan support in Congress”, he said.

The speech was received enthusiastically by the thousands of NAACP members, who applauded often. Three days earlier, the President had commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent prisoners with federal drug convictions. It was also two days before he became the first U. S. President to actually visit a federal prison.

Obama told the audience that a third of the Justice Department’s budget now goes toward incarceration. “But every dollar they have to spend keeping nonviolent drug offenders in prison is a dollar they can’t spend going after drug kingpins, or tracking down terrorists, or hiring more police and giving them the resources that would allow them to do a more effective job community policing,” he said.

He added that there are immeasurable costs – those that come from the racial disparities of the system and the disproportionate impacts on people of color.

“African Americans and Latinos make up 30 percent of our population; they make up 60 percent of our inmates.  About one in every 35 African American men, one in every 88 Latino men is serving time right now.  Among white men, that number is one in 214,” he said. “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.”

The president continued, “This is not just barbershop talk.  A growing body of research shows that people of color are more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, [and] detained.  African Americans are more likely to be arrested.  They are more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime.  And one of the consequences of this is, around one million fathers are behind bars.  Around one in nine African American kids has a parent in prison.”

The details of the speech appeared to be long-awaited as the applause were often not only enthusiastic but thunderous. He praised Chairman Roslyn Brock and President/CEO Cornell William Brooks for their sometimes thankless work as civil rights leaders.

“It’s not always received with a lot of fanfare.  Sometimes it’s lonely work; sometimes it’s hard work; sometimes it’s frustrating work.  But it’s necessary work.  And it builds on a tradition of this organization that reshaped the nation,” he said.

President Obama has spoken to the NAACP just about every year since he’s been in office, but never with as much detail about the perils of racism and injustice.

“What is that doing to our communities?  What’s that doing to those children?  Our nation is being robbed of men and women who could be workers and taxpayers, could be more actively involved in their children’s lives, could be role models, could be community leaders, and right now they’re locked up for a non-violent offense,” Obama said. “So our criminal justice system isn’t as smart as it should be.  It’s not keeping us as safe as it should be.  It is not as fair as it should be.  Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it.”