Obama calls for overhaul of criminal justice system

WASHINGTON — Emphasizing that disadvantaged neighborhoods are "part of America, too," President Barack Obama laid out an expansive vision for overhauling the nation's criminal justice system on Tuesday, including a review of solitary confinement and a reduction of mandatory drug sentences.

Obama, speaking to the annual meeting of the NAACP, said current policies have caused disproportionate harm to predominantly African-American communities in places such as Baltimore by imposing tougher punishments on men of color. He called on Congress to overhaul some of those laws by the end of the year.


"Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it," Obama told the venerable civil rights group, which is headquartered in Baltimore but is holding its meeting in Philadelphia. "Around 1 million fathers are behind bars. What is that doing to our communities?"

Obama, careful in his approach to such issues early in his presidency, is spending significant time this week discussing the criminal justice system. He commuted sentences on Monday for 46 nonviolent offenders, including a Prince George's County man sentenced to life in prison in 1993 for possessing and distributing crack cocaine. On Thursday he is set to visit a federal prison in Oklahoma, becoming the first sitting president to do so.


The administration's focus has evolved from high-profile police incidents such as the death of Freddie Gray, which led to the Baltimore riots in April. The president has spoken repeatedly since then not only of policing reforms but also of broader societal and economic problems he said the nation must confront.

"Places like West Philly, or West Baltimore, or Ferguson, Missouri, they're part of America, too," Obama said. "So we've got to make sure boys and girls in those communities are loved and cherished and supported and nurtured and invested in."

The president stressed that some people, particularly violent criminals, need to remain behind bars. And he sought to insulate police from his harshest criticism, suggesting that officers are being asked to "contain the hopelessness" that is aggravated by political disagreements about how to fix underlying problems.

Obama's renewed attention on the issue comes amid bipartisan rumblings in Washington that some change is due. Several Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates — notably, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is among a crowded field seeking the GOP nomination next year — are calling for a reduction of mandatory sentences for drug offenders and the restoration of voting rights for some ex-felons.

A House committee hearing on the subject Tuesday featured testimony from a bipartisan panel of elected officials.

"Right now, we have a historic moment of opportunity on criminal justice reform," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "We must strive to turn that moment into a movement."

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the committee, expressed similar sentiments.

"I worry that the criminal justice system today is not the system that I think we should aspire to," the Utah Republican said. "The rise and expansion of the system is something that I would call into question."

Obama said Tuesday that he had asked Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch to conduct a review of what he described as an overuse of solitary confinement in prisons across the nation. He called on Congress to reduce mandatory minimum sentences — "or get rid of them entirely" — and said people who have served their time should be allowed to vote.

Maryland is one of 39 states that allows ex-convicts to vote after they have completed their sentences, including any probation and parole. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed a bill earlier this year that would have allowed felons to vote as soon as they left prison.

The president pointed to a job training center housed at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Boyds as a way to "give folks a head start in thinking about what might you do otherwise than committing crime."

On Monday, Obama commuted the sentence of Norman O'Neal Brown, a Hyattsville man who was serving a life sentence for his role in a large-scale drug ring that operated in Washington and suburban Maryland. He was arrested in 1990.


Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, is one of several lawmakers to propose a sweeping package of legislation on criminal justice. A centerpiece of Cardin's measure is a prohibition on racial profiling, a proposal he has long championed. The bill would also make certain federal grants to police departments contingent on the adoption of anti-profiling policies.

White House officials released a report Tuesday that found significant economic benefits from investing in at-risk youth. The report predicted a 2 percent growth in the U.S. economy if the nation managed to close the gap in labor force participation between black and Hispanic men and white men.

That report also found that Baltimore fared particularly badly in economic mobility. Every year of youth spent in a low-income family in Baltimore reduces a child's adult earnings by nearly 1 percent, the study found.

"We've got to make sure our juvenile justice system remembers that kids are different," Obama said. "Don't just tag them as future criminals. Reach out to them as future citizens."


In Baltimore

The U.S. Justice Department is conducting multiple reviews of Baltimore's Police Department, including:

• A probe to determine whether there has been a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing.

•A civil rights probe into the death of Freddie Gray.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun