As President Barack Obama nears the end of his second and final term in the Oval Office, he is pushing to fulfill his promises to overhaul America's criminal justice system, announcing proposals for wide-ranging reforms within communities, courtrooms, and cellblocks to "fix a broken system."
Obama revealed his plans after taking the podium on Tuesday in Philadelphia on the last day of the NAACP's 106th annual convention.
"[The criminal justice system] remains particular skewed by race and wealth and has ripple effects," Obama said before leaders and members of the nation's oldest civil rights group. "People of color are more likely to be stopped, frisked question charged, detained. African Americans are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime."
Less than 24 hours earlier, the president commuted sentences for 46 non-violent drug offenders, some serving decades to life under outdated sentencing laws, bringing his tally of clemencies to 89 — more than the last four presidents combined. On Thursday, he's off to tour Oklahoma's El Reno prison, a trip that will make him the first sitting president to visit a federal correctional facility. Some say the actions are long overdue, but fixing the system is no easy task, Obama said Tuesday. And to do it, he'll need support from both sides of the aisle in Congress.
The president previously hinted at his criminal justice initiative in his January State of the Union address, when he urged Congress to take action on the issue for the sake of ordinary Americans, referencing protests and riots over police killings of unarmed civilians.
"We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York," Obama said in his address. "But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can't walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won't rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift."
But the president said Tuesday that the issue has "created some unlikely bedfellows" in Congress and beyond, with plans to reduce the $80 billion taxpayer dollars spent on corrections each year receiving bipartisan support.
Democratic Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey and Republican Senator and 2016 presidential hopeful Rand Paul have already co-sponsored the REDEEM Act, which would truncate jail terms for non-violent prisoners, help wipe out the lingering effects of criminal records for juvenile offenders when they reach adulthood, and block children from being sent to solitary confinement.
Republican senators Mike Lee from Utah and presidential candidate Ted Cruz of Texas have also advocated alongside their Democratic counterparts for the Smarter Sentencing bill. The legislation would dramatically cut back mandatory minimum sentences, which soared in the '80s when the war on crack — a drug more often associated with black dealers and users — intensified and drug convictions soared, while sentences for powder cocaine, linked more often to whites, remained low.
'Mass incarceration keeps our country worse off and we need to do something about it.'
Obama, who sought to reduce that gap with the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, said Tuesday said he would continue to close the race disparity in sentencing, and called for Congress to pass the new bill to shorten sentences this year.
"We need to lower mandatory minimum sentences or get rid of them entirely," he said. "Mass incarceration keeps our country worse off and we need to do something about it."
But changing the system from the inside out requires more than just bipartisan support at the top levels of government. It will also require local lawmakers and officials to meet calls for greater accountability in policing, and address the social and economic factors driving up crime rates in their cities and states.
On Tuesday, Obama said that while the US is home to 5 percent of the world's population, it has 25 percent of the world's prisoners. "Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China's," he said. The racial disparities in the American prison system are also staggering: Black people account for 1 million of the 2.3 million people currently behind bars, and, although African Americans only make up an estimated 12 percent of drug users, they are arrested for 38 percent of all drug offenses.
To counteract these soaring figures, Obama called for greater investment in education, saying the criminal justice system is too often a "pipeline from underfunded inadequate schools to overcrowded jails."
"Crime is like any other epidemic, the best place to stop it is before it starts," he said. "If we make investments early in our children we will reduce the need to incarcerate those kids."
Obama's speech came less than three weeks after a rousing eulogy he delivered at a funeral for South Carolina State Senator Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was murdered along with eight other congregants in a racially motivated shooting in Charleston last month. That incident, along with the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Walter Scott in North Charleston, and others involving unarmed black men, has given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement has mobilized quickly to call for accountability and justice.
There have been signs the system is budging. Four days ago, in a move unthinkable a few short weeks ago, South Carolina lawmakers took down the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state Capitol, where it had flown for more than 50 years. The Charleston massacre provoked lawmakers in other cities and state states to start similar conversations about the flag, which has historic ties to white supremacy and slavery, as well as other Confederate symbols and monuments. The NAACP convention has been the landing point for these and broader discussions on systemic racism ingrained in the criminal justice system and other US institutions, as well as unchecked gun violence and biased policing.
"Fixing the criminal justice system will also mean fixing biased policing and racial profiling in the country," conference speaker Charles Belk told VICE News. "We need cultural sensitivity training for law enforcement agencies, but there also needs to be additional education on the public side."
Belk, 51, a film producer, said he was wrongfully arrested last summer in a case of mistaken identity. He used social media to draw attention to his fraught efforts to erase his record, and to push for so-called "auto-erase" legislation that automatically expunges criminal records in cases of mistaken arrests. Six states have introduced "auto-erase" legislation.
"We have a situation going on in our country right now where people are being unfairly targeted for various reasons," Belk said. "Like in my situation, if law enforcement mistakenly identifies and wrongfully arrest someone, they have to spend an average of $5,000 and six months of their time to get that arrest erased.
"If a person doesn't have the appropriate resources they get caught up in the criminal justice system," he added.
'Fixing the criminal justice system will also mean fixing biased policing and racial profiling in the country.'
The president also noted in his speech that law enforcement agencies around the country have worked hard to keep streets safe, a remark that received cheers and nods from officers at the event. The police presence Tuesday involved not only officers providing security, but also a small number who manned recruitment booths at the convention's career fair.
"One of the aspects of being here at the NAACP is to show they know we're still open arms to anybody and so they know how friendly police can be," Officer Edward Savage, a 20-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department told VICE News. "There are things that are going to happen on this type of job. Yeah you're going to get officers that make mistakes, but that's not the family of officers."
Several prominent law enforcement officials delivered speeches in the days before Obama's address, including Loretta Lynch, America's first black female attorney general, and Baltimore's chief prosecutor Marilyn Moseby, who recently charged six police officers in the Freddie Gray case. Referencing the recent focus on the deaths of unarmed black men and boys, Moseby stood up and asked: "Is there justice for women and girls?"
As convention goers filed out of the hall where Obama spoke Tuesday, they were confronted with a display of large black and white portraits, including images of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teen whose killer in Florida was acquitted and walked free in July 2013, sparking a national conversation on gun laws and racial profiling.
The artist, Mark Gaines, told VICE News his art was a form of social healing intended as a reminder that the concepts underlying calls for criminal and social justice are actually simple: respect and kindness.
"Criminal justice is the topic of the globe, not just here," he said. "There's bigotry and hatred everywhere. But none of us had the choice coming into this world of who we are and what we're going to be. I have to deal with you like I want to be dealt with. It's simple. It's about humanity."