At the 106th annual NAACP convention in Philadelphia Tuesday evening, President Obama called for major changes to one of the country’s most pressing and complex issues: mass incarceration. Noting the importance of preventing crime by ensuring opportunities for all Americans, and of reducing recidivism by making jails more humane, Obama stressed that reform is in the hands of not only prosecutors, judges and police, but of our country as a whole. He asked the audience to have the courage to confront criminal justice reform step-by-step, and made some salient remarks about the inefficiency of a criminal justice system that does not make us safer, but that does come with high costs, financial and otherwise.
“Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it,” Obama said, noting that our criminal justice system “remains particularly skewed by race and by wealth, a source of inequity that has ripple effects on families and our communities, and ultimately our nation.” The speech, which came on the heels of the announcement that he would commute the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders, focused on three areas in which reform can happen: in the community, the courtroom and the cellblock.
Here are some of his most poignant remarks, reflecting the ways in which he wants this unjust system to change.
1. On the country’s enormous prison population:
“The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Think about that. Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s. We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined.”
2. On when – and why – that population grew so huge:
“Over the last two decades we’ve also locked up more and more non-violent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before, and that is the real reason our prison population is so high. In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime. If you’re low-level drug dealer or you violate your parole, 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’s sentence.”
“For nonviolent drug crimes we need to lower long mandatory minimum sentences or get rid of them entirely.”
3. On better ways to spend our tax dollars:
“Every year we spend $80 billion to keep folks incarcerated – $80 billion. Just to put that in perspective, for $80 billion we could have universal preschool for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in America. That’s what $80 billion buys. For $80 billion, we could double the salary of every high school teacher in America. For $80 billion, we could finance new roads and new bridges and new airports, job-training programs, research and development. For what we spend to keep everyone locked up for one year, we could eliminate tuition at every single one of our public colleges and universities.”
4. On racial disparities in prisons and jails:
“And then, of course, there are the costs that can’t be measured in dollars and cents because the statistics on who gets incarcerated show that by a wide margin,it disproportionately impacts communities of color. African-Americans and Latinos make up 30 percent of our population. They make up 60 percent of our inmates. About one in every 35 African-American men, and one in every 88 Latino men, is serving time right now. Among white men, that number is one in 214. The bottom line is, in too many places black boys and black men, Latino boys and Latino men, experience being treated differently under the law. This is not just barbershop talk.”
“A growing body of research shows that people of color are more likely to be stopped, questioned, frisked, charged, detained. African-Americans are more likely to be arrested. They are more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime.”
5. On the impacts of over-incarceration on black families and communities:
“One of the consequences of this is that one million fathers are behind bars. Around one in nine African-American kids has a parent in prison. What is that doing to our communities? What’s that doing to those children? Our nation’s being robbed of men and women who could be workers, and taxpayers, could be more actively involved with their children. They could be role models, could be community leaders, and right now they’re locked up for a non-violent offense.”
6. On investing in opportunity instead of incarceration:
“If we make investments early in our children, we will reduce the need to incarcerate those kids. One study found that for every dollar we invest in pre-K, we save at least twice that down the road in reduced crime. Getting a teenager a job for the summer costs a fraction of what it costs to lock him up for 15 years. Investing in our communities makes sense.”
“What doesn’t make sense is treating entire neighborhoods as little more than danger zones where we just surround them, where we ask police to go in there and do the tough job of trying to contain the hopelessness, when we are not willing to make the investments to help lift those communities out of hopelessness.”
7. On the school-to-prison pipeline:
“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, [while] we call the police on another set of kids? 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.”
“[I]n too many cases, our criminal justice system ends up being a pipeline from underfunded inadequate schools to overcrowded jails.
8. On improving conditions behind bars:
“The people in our prisons have made some mistakes, and sometimes big mistakes. They are also Americans, and we have to make sure that as they do their time and pay back their debt to society, that we are increasing the possibility that they can turn their lives around…and that’s why we should not tolerate conditions in prison that have no place in any civilized country. We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison. We should not be tolerating gang activity in prison. We should not be tolerating rape in prison and we should not be making jokes about it in our popular culture. That’s no joke. These things are unacceptable.”
“What’s more, I’ve asked my attorney general to start a review of the overuse of solitary confinement across American prisons. The social science shows that an environment like this is often more likely to make inmates more alienated, more hostile, potentially more violent. Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, for months, sometimes for years, at a time? That is not going to make us safer. That is not going to make us stronger.”
9. On re-entry into society:
“And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It’s not smart. Our prisons should be a place where we can train people for skills that can help them find a job, not train them to become more hardened criminals.”
“All the people incarcerated in our prisons will eventually someday be released….So on Thursday, I will be the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.”
“Let’s reward prisoners with reduced sentences if they complete programs that make them less likely to commit a repeat offense. Let’s invest in innovative new approaches to link former prisoners with employers, help them stay on track.”
“Let’s follow the growing number of our states and cities and private companies who’ve 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. And if folks have served their time, and they’ve reentered society, they should be able to vote.”
10. On equal opportunity and justice for all:
“Justice is not only the absence of oppression. It is the presence of opportunity.”
“Justice is…making sure every young person knows they are special, and that they are important and their lives matter. Not because they heard it in a hashtag, but because of the love they feel every single day.”
“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.”