On Tuesday, US President Barack Obama gave a speech in Philadelphia at the NAACP national convention, which can be seen in the above-embedded video player, promoting criminal justice reform. In his remarks, he argued that tough-on-crime War-on-Drugs policies have slipped out of control, pushing the US incarceration rate beyond that of China. He also commented on the disparate racial outcomes of arbitrarily-enforced criminal laws targeting non-violent offenders, noting that Latinos and African-Americans are disproportionately represented in US prison populations.
During the speech, President Obama struck a bipartisan tone and, as The Hill points out, commented on some of the strange ideological bedfellows that have coalesced around the movement to reform America’s criminal justice system and victimless criminal laws.
“As Republican Senator and presidential candidate Rand Paul has said — no, and to his credit, he’s been consistent on this issue — imprisoning large numbers of non-violent drug offenders for long periods of time ‘costs the taxpayers’ money without making them any safer,'” said President Obama.
After continuing to highlight the financial and human costs of the mass incarceration of non-violent Americans, Obama said optimistically, “I am feeling more hopeful today because even now, when, let’s face it, it seems like Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on anything — a lot of them agree on this. In fact, today, back in Washington, Republican senators from Utah and Texas are joining Democratic senators from New Jersey and Rhode Island to talk about how Congress can pass meaningful criminal justice reform this year. That’s good news.”
He continued, “That doesn’t happen very often. And it’s not just senators. This is a cause that’s bringing people in both houses of Congress together. It’s created some unlikely bedfellows. You’ve got Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. You’ve got Americans for Tax Reform and the ACLU. You’ve got the NAACP and the Koch brothers. No, you’ve got to give them credit. You’ve got to call it like you see it. There are states from Texas and South Carolina to California and Connecticut who have acted to reduce their prison populations over the last five years and seen their crime rates fall. That’s good news.”
In his speech, Obama advocated for policy positions including lowering or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, empowering judges to exercise discretion in non-violent cases, and restoring the voting rights of convicted felons who have served their time. He also encouraged companies to follow the leads of others such as Koch Industries who no longer ask job applicants if they have been convicted of a crime.
CNN notes that, on Monday, President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 low-level drug offenders who were facing long prison stints. On Thursday, he visited the El Reno Correctional Institution in El Reno, OK as a part of his criminal justice reform push, making him the first sitting US president to visit a federal prison.
Watch our latest “Consider This” episode on the drug war and non-violent offenders: