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July 14, 2015

Obama calls for comprehensive criminal justice reform

The President says the criminal justice system has a 'long history of inequity'

President Barack Obama called for sweeping reforms to the criminal justice system Tuesday, advocating changes in courtrooms, prisons and communities across the country.

Obama shined a light on a criminal justice system that he said has "a long history of inequity" and "remains particularly skewed by race and by wealth" while addressing about 8,000 delegates at the NAACP's national convention in Philadelphia.

The United States houses 25 percent of the world's inmates despite comprising just 5 percent of the world population, Obama said. A disproportionate number of them are minorities. African Americans and Latinos make up 30 percent of our national population but comprise 60 percent of the prison population.

"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. "We can't close our eyes anymore."

The nation's prison population has quadrupled from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million, Obama said, noting incarceration costs the country $80 billion annually. 

Many attribute prison population increases to tough-on-crime laws passed during the 1980s and 1990s. Those laws established mandatory minimums, particularly in regard to drug offenses.

Obama called for a sentencing reform bill to reach his desk by the end of the year, saying there is no need to keep nonviolent drug offenders locked up for decades. Such penalties are both unnecessary and expensive, he said.

"Our criminal justice system isn't as smart as it should be," Obama said. "It's not keeping us as safe as it should be. It's not as fair as it should be. Mass incarceration makes our country worse off and we need to do something about it."

Obama praised bipartisan efforts in both houses of Congress, noting Republicans and Democrats have found a rare spot of consensus. He lauded state governments that have taken efforts to reduce their prison populations, noting that the national crime and incarceration rates both dropped for the first time in 40 years.

"We're just at the beginning of this problem and we need to stay with it," Obama said.

The NAACP has called for criminal justice reforms since it kicked off its convention Saturday. Obama drew praise from the packed convention hall throughout his speech.

Rev. Rutha Jackson, a delegate from Warner Robins, Georgia, called Obama's remarks "enlightening."

"I thought he was amazing because he focused on all of the issues that were pertinent to the African American community," Jackson said. "He expressed it so plainly that even a child could understand. He not only showed his heart, but expressed his intention for the future.

"It's all about us working together. Let's face the issue and then work together to get it done."

President Barack Obama urged Congress to pass a sentencing reform bill by the end of the year during his speech Tuesday at the NAACP national convention. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Obama called for reform within the prison system, advocating for programs that leave inmates better prepared to re-enter society. He pushed for reforms that reward prisoners with reduced sentences if they complete programs proven to reduce recidivism. He also called for banning employers from including a convicted felon box on job applications.

"I'm going to shine a spotlight on this issue, because while the people in our prisons have made mistakes — and sometimes big mistakes — they are also Americans," Obama said. "We have to make sure that as they do their time and pay back their debt to society, that we are increasing the possibility that they can turn their lives around."

NAACP board Chairwoman Roslyn Brock said Obama's advocacy for providing second chances particularly rung true.

"We have to think more strategically about our criminal justice system and how we value our citizens in this nation," Brock said. "We say that we are pursuing liberty in the face of justice — that's saying we affirm their liberties, the pursuit of happiness and to make a positive contribution in this nation."

Obama urged greater investment both in the education system and in low-income communities, saying community programs reduce crime and save taxpayers incarceration expenses. He also pushed for changes in the juvenile justice system.

"We've got to make sure our juvenile justice system remembers that kids are different," Obama said. "Don't tag them as future criminals. Reach out to them as future citizens."

Obama, who has grown more willing to address issues of race as his presidency draws to a close, will become the first sitting President to visit a federal prison when he tours Oklahoma's El Reno Correctional Institution on Thursday.

President Barack Obama poses for photographs with the crowd after speaking during the NAACP's 106th national convention. (Matt Slocum/Associated Press)

Prior to addressing the NAACP delegates, Obama met with four former prisoners backstage.

One of them, Jeff Copeland, was arrested six times before his 38th birthday, including several DUIs. In prison, Obama said, Copeland re-examined his life, often while running in place. Next fall, Copeland will graduate from Temple University with a degree in criminal justice.

Copeland, dubbed "the running man" in prison, ran his first marathon two years ago, an anecdote from which Obama drew parallels to America's criminal justice reform efforts. Reform will come step by step, Obama said.

"So, we cannot ignore the problems that we have, but we can’t stop running the race," Obama said. "That’s how you win the race. That’s how you fix a broken system. That’s how you change a country."

John Lemon, a delegate from the Bronx, New York, called Obama's remarks a great speech that encouraged the NAACP to keep moving.

"It's something we need to motivate people," Lemon said. "Criminal justice, that's big. There's got to be reform there."

Otis McGowan, a delegate from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said he appreciated Obama highlighting prisoners who improved their lives following their crimes.

"People make mistakes in life," McGowan said. "You can't just give up on yourself. You have to keep pushing to make the best of yourself."