President Obama outlined an ambitious roadmap for criminal justice reform during an address at the NAACP convention Tuesday.
In a 45-minute speech, Obama called for reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, reviewing the use of the solitary confinement and barring employers from asking job applicants about their criminal history, among other things.
“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 Tuesday. “Justice is not only the absence of oppression, it’s the presence of opportunity.”
While Obama has touched on many of the individual policy ideas in the past, the speech was the first in recent memory to tie them all together into a blueprint for action. The speech likely presages a series of upcoming executive actions on criminal justice reform.
The speech varied, with Obama at times speaking passionately about the need for reform, and at other times delving into statistics to make his case.
Obama’s remarks included a litany of daunting statistics: that 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. But Obama said he’s found hope in the fact that politicians on both sides of the aisle have taken up the issue.
Back in in Washington, a bipartisan group of Senators gathered on Tuesday to discuss getting criminal justice reform passed this legislative year. In the House, a group of lawmakers formed a caucus focused on criminal justice reform.
“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 in a video posted to Facebook on Monday.
At the NAACP convention in Philadelphia, Obama noted the "strange bedfellows" that efforts to reform the criminal justice system have created, among them the Koch brothers and the NAACP. At one point, he even quoted Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, drawing a mixed response from the crowd.
Obama told the crowd early on that he wasn’t going to sing, but the commander-in-chief did some preaching on a topic that has been a focus of his second term agenda. Initiatives including the Department of Justice’s Smart on Crime program aimed at reducing the impact of our nation’s dated drug laws, My Brother’s Keeper, and the Clemency Project have all been Obama-led initiatives to reform the criminal justice system.
The initiatives have not been without criticism, however—lawmakers have long called for more action on policies that reduce sentences and provide more opportunities to communities that are more often impacted by tough sentencing laws.
The speech came at the start of a week marked by hefty achievements by the Obama administration on the criminal justice front. On Monday, Obama reduced the sentences of 46 federal inmates who had been incarcerated for committing non-violent, low-level drug offenses over the past two decades. The new round of commutations brings Obama’s total issued up to 89—more than any U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson. The commutations were the latest in the administration’s effort to rollback some of the damage caused by the nation’s drug laws.
On Thursday, Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison when he travels to Federal Correctional Institution El Reno. Obama is expected to meet with inmates during the prison stop, and on Tuesday he said he met with four—one Latino, one white, and two black—before jumping on stage at the convention.
“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,” Obama said. “Justice and redemption go hand in hand.”