President Barack Obama visited the NAACP's national convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday, urging for an overhaul of the criminal justice system in the United States. He focused largely on those locked up for non-violent crimes.
According to Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post, the president contended that the United States needed to reevaluate an "aspect of American life that remains particularly skewed by race and by wealth. As one of his final domestic policies, he hopes to tackle sentencing reform with Congress before leaving office.
"In far too many cases, the punishment simply doesn't fit the crime," Obama said. "And by the way, the taxpayers are picking up the tab for that price."
Obama added that "we can't close our eyes anymore" to the problem, noting the U.S. prison population has more than quadrupled from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million today. He pointed out that the federal government spent $80 billion each year on prisons, which took up nearly a third of the Justice Department's budget.
"In the American tradition and in the immigrant tradition of remaking ourselves, in the Christian tradition that says none of us is without sin and all of us need redemption, justice and redemption go hand in hand," Obama said.
White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told the Washington Post that the president took the issue personally, noting that he has met regularly with young people of color who spoke out on harsher punishments directed at them in comparison to Obama's time.
"He just wants to make sure they don't get unfairly stuck in the criminal justice system because they've made mistakes early in their lives, without the ability to ever have a second chance," Jarrett said.
According to the Washington Post, Obama would be the first president to visit a federal prison when he goes to Oklahoma on Thursday. He emphasized that he wanted to "shine a spotlight" on prison conditions and show that prisoners "are also Americans" too.
"For nonviolent drug crimes, we need to lower long mandatory minimum sentences - or get rid of them entirely," Obama said.
The president added that he hoped the outlined reforms would foster change "in the community, in the courtroom and in the cellblock." According to the Washington Post, Obama ordered Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch to review the use of solitary confinement and combat poor conditions in prisons.
According to Melanie Eversley of USA Today, the president contended that locking up people for non-violent offenses "simply does not fit the crime." He also argued that the justice system appeared to be skewed against children and black and Latino people.
"The question is, are we letting principals and parents deal with one set of kids and we call the police on another set of kids?" Obama asked. "That's not the right thing to do."
The president pointed out that the current justice system has not been built to support people trying to rehabilitate themselves.
"Mass incarceration makes our country worse off and we need to do something about it," Obama said. "None of us is without sin and all of us need redemption. Justice and redemption go hand in hand."
NAACP President Cornell William Brooks gave high marks to the president's speech.
"I could not have been more moved by the president's speech because many of the people who were most affected by what he said couldn't vote for him today because they don't have the right to vote," Brooks said. "Even if they could vote for him on the outside, there are millions of them locked up on the inside."