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Yesterday, two days before his visit to the El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma – the first visit to a prison by a sitting United States president – President Barack Obama made a long-overdue and compelling call for the reform of the US criminal justice system.

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at the NAACP's annual convention in Philadelphia July 14, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

In a speech before the civil rights organization the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People(NAACP) in Philadelphia, Obama referred to the US criminal justice system as “one aspect of American life that remains particularly skewed by race and by wealth, a source of inequity that has ripple effects on families and on communities and ultimately on our nation.”

It was a strong assertion. Obama’s speech encapsulated many of the concerns Human Rights Watch has raised in more than 20 years of research into the US criminal justice system: from the scourge of prison rape to the harms of solitary confinement; from racial disparities in drug enforcement to unfair sentences. 

Obama specifically pointed to the damage caused by excessively long, disproportionate sentences, particularly for drug offenders: “In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime. If you’re a 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 sentence. That's disproportionate to the price that should be paid.” To that end, Obama called for mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes to be reduced, and in some cases eliminated.

Obama also highlighted some horrific conditions in US prisons and jails. He raised the widespread use of solitary confinement and directed Attorney General Loretta Lynch to review its overuse nationwide. He said, “Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time? That is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It’s not smart.”

On the heels of the introduction of a promising criminal justice reform measure in the US House of Representatives, and signs of progress on reform in the Senate, Obama’s speech hit the right notes at the right time. Both the Republican and Democratic parties, the Congress, and the president are now on record: let’s restore justice to the US criminal justice system.


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