Current and former democratic presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton spoke on the future of The United States’ criminal justice system before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples 106th Convention in Philadelphia July 14. President Obama’s speech came the day after he commuted the sentences of more than 46 nonviolent drug offenders, more than double the amount of prisoners he commuted during the entire rest of the year. The address also came two days before his visit, on July 16, to El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma, making him the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.
During the speech, the President called for sweeping reforms to the U.S. prison and criminal justice system that would lower America’s rate of incarceration and help former convicts assimilate into society. These reforms include getting rid of mandatory minimums and putting an end to the zero tolerance policies, which have resulted in schools treating students of color as criminals rather than children.
“If you are a parent, you know that there are times where boys and girls are going to act out in school. And 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. We’ve got to make sure our juvenile justice system remembers that kids are different. Don’t just tag them as future criminals. Reach out to them as future citizens,” the President continued.
Obama also called for significant changes to be made with how society treats former criminals who have served their time and paid their debt to society. “Here’s another good idea — one with bipartisan support in Congress: Let’s reward prisoners with reduced sentences if they complete programs that make them less likely to commit a repeat offense,” he said.
“Let’s invest in innovative new approaches to link former prisoners with employers and help them stay on track. Let’s follow the growing number of our states and cities and private companies who have decided to ‘Ban the Box’ on job applications so that former prisoners who have done their time and are now trying to get straight with society have a decent shot in a job interview,” he continued, then added, “And if folks have served their time, and they’ve reentered society, they should be able to vote.”
This speech was the first time the President publicly voiced his support for re-enfranchising of ex-offenders. The U.S. is one of the strictest countries in the world in terms of felony disenfranchisement.
The other piece of breaking information in the speech that had not been previously heard from the White House was that the President had asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch to look into a the overuse of solitary confinement in prisons across the country.
“Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time? That is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger,” Obama affirmed.
The appeal lasted 45 minutes as the President called for reform for the nation’s penal system. Obama also highlighted statistics related to the U.S. justice system, such as the fact that although the U.S. contains only five percent of the world’s population, the nation contains 25 percent of the world’s prisons. While African Americans and Latinos make up only 30 percent of the country’s population, they make up 60 percent of U.S. prisoners. Furthermore, the U.S.’s level of incarceration is quadruple that of China and there are more people in prison in this country than the top 35 European countries with the most prisoners combined.
During the address, the President also lauded the bipartisan support that reforming the justice system has received.
“This is a cause that’s bringing people in both houses of Congress together,” he said.
“It’s created some unlikely bedfellows. You’ve got Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. You’ve got Americans for Tax Reform and the American Civil Liberties Union. You’ve got the NAACP and the Koch brothers,” Obama told the crowd.
Following the address by President Obama was one by former president Bill Clinton at the conventions closing session July 14. Though Clinton mostly reiterated and reinforced what President Obama said the day before, he also acknowledged that many of the ills that the President is trying to fix were caused by laws passed during his time in office.
Clinton’s speech covered a variety of other topics such as the decision by South Carolina’s state house to take down the confederate battle flag from its grounds. This act resulted in the NAACP’s decision during the convention to end their decades long boycott of the state. The former president mainly spoke to the importance of community building and reconciliation in the wake of conflict.