President Barack Obama wants to do away with mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug crimes. On Tuesday, in a fiery speech at the NAACP’s annual convention in Philadelphia, he called for new legislation that would minimize or eliminate minimum sentencing altogether.
The laws which came about during the 80s and 90s drug-and-crime waves, the president says, need to be overhauled because the sentences do not fit the crimes. Many of them disproportionately incarcerate young African American and Latino men. The NAACP has been calling for a more balanced system of justice for a long time.
“In too many places, black boys and black men, and Latino boys and Latino men, experience being treated different under the law," Obama said, claiming his assertion wasn't "anecdote" or "barber shop talk," but instead backed by data.
Besides reducing or eliminating minimum sentencing, Obama wants to change conditions that offenders face both inside and outside prisons. Conditions such as prison rape and solitary confinement, he said, should not exist in a civilized society. He added that once a non-violent drug offender has paid his debt to society, he should be allowed to vote, and not made to identify himself as a criminal when seeking employment.
The speech came a day after Obama commuted 46 drug offenders' sentences. A massive backlog of federal clemency applications has swelled since the administration began soliciting requests from prisoners serving long sentences for drug related crimes — more than 15% of the total federal prison population has now petitioned Obama for a sentence reduction.
"This is such a tip of the iceberg. These 46 people are lucky," said Julie Stewart, the founder and president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "But there are literally over 2,000 people in federal prison serving life without parole for non-violent offenses. I doubt the president is going to get to each one of them before he leaves office."
Obama has the support of some unlikely backers on this issue, including Sen. Rand Paul, running for the GOP nomination, who has introduced legislation reforming sentencing laws; and Charles and David Koch, the industrialist billionaires who have funded efforts backing reform.
"While people in our prisons made mistakes -- sometimes big mistakes -- they are also Americans," he said. "We have to ensure as they do their time and pay back their debt to society we are increasing the possibility they can turn their lives around."
President Obama has commuted reduced sentencing to nearly 90 offenders—the most since President Lyndon B. Johnson. He's now commuted more sentences than his four predecessors combined.