Lighter sentences for nonviolent crime: Barack Obama wants bipartisan action

U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to the NAACP about legislative action to reduce unduly harsh sentences, eliminate disparities in the way justice is applied and lessen taxpayer costs to house prisoners.

After commuting sentences of 46 drug offenders Monday, U.S. president wants to change laws

U.S. President Barack Obama is cutting the prison sentences of 46 convicts as part of a broader effort to make the criminal justice fairer and ease the punishment of those serving more time than their crimes warranted. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

U.S. President Barack Obama is pushing for bipartisan action to change the criminal justice system in ways that go far beyond the limited executive powers he's used to reduce harsh prison sentences for dozens of non-violent offenders.

In a speech to the NAACP civil rights group's annual convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday, the president called for legislative action to reduce unduly harsh sentences, eliminate disparities in the way justice is applied and lessen taxpayer costs to house prisoners.

"Mass incarceration makes our country worse off," he said. "And we need to do something about it."

Obama said that there are some individuals, like murderers and rapists, who belong in prison. But others, like those incarcerated for drug-related offences, have been too harshly punished.

The president said that in order to shine a spotlight on the issue of reform in the cell block, on Thursday he will become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.

While prisoners have made some mistakes, "they are also Americans," he said.

Obama said, "We have to make sure … we are increasing the possibility that they can turn their lives around."

He said there should be no tolerance for conditions in prison that "have no place in any civilized country" and that he has asked the attorney general to start a review of the overuse of solitary confinement.

On Monday, Obama commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders, 14 of whom had been sentenced to life in prison.

"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," Obama said Monday.​

"There's a lot more we can do to restore the sense of fairness at the heart of our justice system," Obama added in a video released by the White House.

Republicans react

While some Republicans in Congress are showing new interest in criminal justice legislation, not all Republican legislators saw the president's commutations as a positive step.

Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, a member of the House judiciary committee who has proposed bipartisan legislation, accused the president of issuing commutations as a politically motivated stunt.

"Commuting the sentences of a few drug offenders is a move designed to spur headlines, not meaningful reform," Sensenbrenner said.

In the Senate, judiciary committee chairman Chuck Grassley said in a statement he's been working toward bipartisan agreement on broad legislation that could include reductions in mandatory minimum sentences "in certain situations."

Soaring costs

Since Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes in the 1980s, the federal prison population has grown from 24,000 to more than 214,000, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group seeking sentencing changes.

And the costs, Obama says, are over $80 billion a year to incarcerate people who often "have only been engaged in nonviolent drug offences."

"Congress simply can't act fast enough," said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She said that while Obama's executive actions have picked off some of the most egregious sentencing inequities, significant legislative action is needed to stop the flow of people "going to prison year in and year out, serving too much time."

Support from tough-on-crime Republicans in any such effort is critical, Stewart said.

Todd Cox, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group, said there was momentum from both ends of the political spectrum to address the over-criminalization that has "resulted in people being put in prison who frankly shouldn't be there."

Downward trends

His group is part of the Coalition for Public Safety, whose members and backers range from the liberal American Civil Liberties Union to conservative brothers Charles and David Koch.

In recent years, as the crime rate has dropped, long drug sentences have come under increasing scrutiny and downward trends already are taking shape.

The Supreme Court has made sentencing guideline ranges advisory rather than mandatory. Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 to cut penalties for crack cocaine offences. And last year, the independent Sentencing Commission, which sets sentencing policy, reduced guideline ranges for drug crimes and applied those retroactively.

Overall, Obama has commuted the sentences of 89 people, surpassing the combined number of commutations granted by the previous four presidents. But that's still a sliver of all those seeking clemency: Justice Department statistics show that roughly 2,100 commutation petitions have been received so far this fiscal year, and about 7,900 are pending.


  • An earlier version of this story reported incorrectly that President Barack Obama had said he would be the third sitting president to visit a federal prison. In fact, he said, "On Thursday, I’ll become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison."
    Jul 15, 2015 12:12 PM ET

With files from CBC News


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