President Obama calls for a sweeping bipartisan effort to fix what he called “a broken system” of criminal justice that has locked up too many Americans for too long, especially a whole generation of young black and Latino men.
In a long and at times passionate address to a convention of theN.A.A.C.P., Mr. Obama said the mass incarceration of the past two decades had gone too far and left many communities devastated. He tied what he called the bias built into the system to the racially charged upheaval in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.
“In recent years, the eyes of more Americans have been opened to this truth partly because of cameras, partly because of tragedy, partly because the statistics cannot be ignored,” he said. “We can’t close our eyes anymore. And the good news — and this is truly good news — is that good people of all political persuasions are starting to think we need to do something about this.”
The president’s speech was intended to build on a movement for change that has crossed party lines. Republican and Democratic lawmakers have teamed up with the support of liberal and conservative advocacy groups to propose a variety of measures to overhaul the system. In his speech, Mr. Obama singled out two Republicans who have been leading legislative efforts, Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and John Cornyn of Texas.
Mr. Obama’s speech came a day after he commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent prisoners, bringing his total to 89, though still just a tiny fraction of those who have applied for clemency. On Thursday, Mr. Obama will go to Oklahoma to become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, where he will talk about the need for more humane conditions.
In effect, Mr. Obama used his address on Tuesday to put meat on the bones of his more thematic speech on race at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, one of nine black churchgoers killed last month in Charleston, S.C. While emphasizing that the police do heroic work and that many people deserve to be locked up, he outlined a series of changes he said Congress should consider.
Among other things, he said the country should focus more resources on early childhood education to prevent young people from straying in the first place. He called for a sentencing overhaul bill to be passed this year that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences “or get rid of them entirely,” favoring treatment or other alternatives for many drug offenders.
He called for better conditions for prisoners, saying, “They are also Americans.” He deplored overcrowding. He said he had asked for a review of solitary confinement, declaring that it was “not going to make us safer” to hold an inmate alone in a cell for 23 hours a day. And he condemned prison rape and said it should be treated more seriously. “We shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture,” he said. “That’s no joke.”
He also said the country needed to make it easier for offenders to re-enter society after prison. He endorsed the effort to “ban the box,” meaning the question many employers ask applicants about past convictions, and he said those who serve their sentences “should be able to vote.”
In making his case, he noted that the United States has a far higher incarceration rate than China or Europe and that black and Hispanic men “are more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained.”
But he also made a financial argument. With the $80 billion spent on incarceration every year, he said, the United States could instead provide universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old, or double the salaries of every high school teacher in America.
Few if any other presidents have given a speech extolling the rights of prisoners and calling for lighter sentences, at least for nonviolent criminals. But with the convergence of the political left and right behind change, advocates said he clearly felt politically safe to focus more attention on these issues.
“There’s no feeling that he’s about to touch a third rail,” Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in an interview. “I don’t think he feels that way anymore.”
Indeed, rather than criticizing Mr. Obama, Republicans on Tuesday made it clear that they shared some of the same concerns and had been working on bipartisan legislation to address them.
“Legislating takes a lot of hard work,” Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “We’ve had hours of meaningful discussions up to this point, and those of us in the room are committed to trying to reach an agreement that can gain wide bipartisan support.”