Obama Wants To Let More Nonviolent Criminals Out Of Prison

Photo: Susan Walsh/AP Photo.
President Obama wants Congress to overhaul the criminal-justice system, and he laid out proposals for undoing some of the damage of mass incarceration in a speech at the NAACP’s national convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

“We’ve locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before for longer than ever before,” Obama said, “and that is the real reason that our prison population is so high."

If you get caught for a low-level drug offense or parole violation, he continued, “you owe some debt to society, you have to be held accountable, and make amends. But you don’t owe 20 years. you don’t owe a life sentence. That’s disproportionate to the price that’s being paid.”

This speech is just one part of the White House’s effort; on Monday, Obama commuted the sentences of 46 men and women who were incarcerated primarily for drug offenses, and he will visit a federal prison in Oklahoma on Thursday.

Obama has now commuted 89 sentences, more than any other president but still far from what criminal-justice activists have called for. Last year, the Justice Department announced it would start a new initiative to grant nonviolent offenders clemency, but those efforts have moved slowly.

In a video about the commutations, Obama said, "We're at a moment when some good people in both parties — Republicans and Democrats — and folks all across the country are coming together around ideas to make the system work smarter, make it work better."

Advocacy groups and civil-rights activists want to see more than just a handful of people walking free after spending years in prison for nonviolent crimes. As Alison Holcomb, the director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, told us in an email, “We're looking for the president to acknowledge that dozens of commutations can't fix the problem that decades of ‘tough-on-crime’ rhetoric has filled our prisons with people suffering untreated addiction, trauma, and mental illness, and left no resources to rehabilitate and support the reentry of people back into our communities.”

Many current presidential candidates have already said they want to reduce the nation’s massive prison population, from Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton to libertarian GOP candidate Sen. Rand Paul. In April, Clinton said in a speech that it's time to "end the era of mass incarceration."

On Tuesday, 60 groups joined together to urge the leaders of the House Oversight Committee to take up the cause of reforming the criminal-justice system. In a letter, the advocates called for changes that include an end to draconian mandatory-minimum sentences, more support for men and women leaving prison and returning to their communities, and the expansion of compassionate release for sick inmates.

Changes to the system could have a huge impact on incarcerated women; nearly two-thirds of women in federal prison are there for drug offenses, and according to the Sentencing Project, the number of women in prison is going up at nearly twice the rate as for men.

Although this week will mark several positive steps to change the American justice system, it also commemorates a tragic event: Friday is the one-year anniversary of the death of Eric Garner, the unarmed 43-year-old Staten Island, NY, man whose death at the hands of a police officer inspired massive protests and helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement. On Monday, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer announced that the city had reached a $5.9 million civil settlement with Garner’s family, but Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who put Garner in a chokehold before he died, has yet to face any criminal charges.

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