Obama Calls on Congress to Overhaul Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama departs the White House for Philadelphia, on July 14, 2015. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Barack Obama called on Congress to pass legislation by year’s end to lower or eliminate mandatory minimum sentences.

Unduly harsh sentences and enforcement disparities undermine trust in the legal system, Obama said in a speech Tuesday at the annual convention of the NAACP in Philadelphia.

“Mass incarceration makes our country worse off,” Obama said. “And we need to do something about it.”

The president is seeking to lend momentum to bipartisan legislation that would reduce sentences and encourage probation over prison for nonviolent federal crime. His speech was his second as president to the NAACP convention, and comes as the civil rights organization has turned its focus to the criminal justice system and voting rights.

People of color are more likely to face severe interactions with the criminal justice system, Obama said.

The president also said limited public-safety resources should be focused on practices with proven track records of deterring crime, and that people who completed their sentences shouldn’t be barred from employment or voting.

Obama said the prison population is high because nonviolent drug offenders are getting longer sentences.

“In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime,” he said.

Obama called for a review of prison conditions, saying he had asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch to undertake a review of the use of solitary confinement in jails. He also said the U.S. should not tolerate poor prison conditions, routine sexual assault, or the lack of rehabilitation programs.

Too Costly

The administration has argued that the federal prison population is too costly, and that black and Hispanic people are disproportionately jailed. Obama has also called for the restoration of voting rights for felons who have completed their sentences.

“For what we spend to keep everybody locked up for one year, we could eliminate tuition at every single one of our public colleges and universities,” Obama said.

The president said the costs are draining federal law-enforcement resources from other key areas.

“Every dollar they have to spend keeping nonviolent drug offenders in prison is a dollar they can’t spend going after drug kingpins” or terrorists, Obama said.

Press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that Obama may try to meet with lawmakers of both parties working on sentencing legislation. A day later, Earnest said that while Obama would “send a pretty clear signal about what some of his priorities would be” to Congress, the president also wouldn’t rule out additional executive actions on the issue in the future.

Many conservative lawmakers have rallied around efforts to reduce incarceration, and top Republican donors -- including billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch -- back legislation that would overhaul sentencing laws and reduce prison populations. Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul, a Kentucky senator, is among those support such moves, and received a nod from Obama during his remarks Monday.

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