In one of the most expansive speeches on criminal justice policy of his tenure, President Obama called for either reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes, reconsidering solitary confinement for prisoners and increasing job training programs for people while they are incarcerated.
Obama also urged states to get rid of laws that bar convicted felons from voting and said employers should avoid asking on job applications if a person has a criminal record, both practices that disproportionately affect minorities.
The president also called on Congress to pass a criminal sentence reform bill by the end of the year. And he said he had asked the Department of Justice to start a study on ways to improve conditions for Americans in solitary confinement.
"We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined," the president said in a speech to the NAACP’s annual convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday.
He added, "the people in our prisons have made some mistakes and some big mistakes. But 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."
The remarks come on the heels of the president commuting the sentences of 46 federal prisoners convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. The president cast the decision as part of a push to reform the criminal justice system. Had they been convicted of the same crimes today, most of the 46 would already be out of prison, the White House said.
Fourteen were serving life sentences.
"These men and women were not hard criminals," Obama said in a video message. "Their punishment did not fit the crime." He added: "I believe at its heart America is a nation of second chances, and I believe these folks deserve their second chance."
On Thursday, the president will visit a federal prison in Oklahoma, the first such visit by a sitting president.
Addressing the impact of disproportionate sentencing on minorities is an area where the president has some common ground with some Republicans in Congress. Kentucky senator and Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul, for example, had pushed for changes to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and restore the rights of felons to vote.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has also been working on bipartisan legislation aimed at reducing mandatory minimum sentencing in some situations.
“This is a moment, with the President focusing on this issue, with the Senate Judiciary Committee … in a bicameral, bipartisan way, working on this, I think we can actually produce something that we can all be proud of that will help public safety and help better prepare people released from prison," said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican.
But some conservatives disagree with Obama's approach.
"He is releasing crack dealers, cocaine dealers, and methamphetamine dealers. Most of the 46 were crack cocaine distributors, some convicted of dealing more than 10 pounds of crack," wrote John Walters in article in the conservative Weekly Standard.
Walters, who was George W. Bush's director of drug policy, added, "Moreover, some of these felony drug dealers were also convicted of a gun crime, such as, “possession of a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking offense.”