World & Nation

Obama makes a case for changes to the criminal justice system

President Obama

President Obama addresses the NAACP convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

(Tracie van Auken / European Pressphoto Agency)

President Obama on Tuesday began rolling out a plan for reforming a criminal justice system he says is “skewed by race and by wealth” but is ripe for change at the hands of political leaders.

Speaking at the national convention of the NAACP in Philadelphia, Obama praised Republicans including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and the moneyed Koch brothers for their work on the issue, urging the mostly black audience to “give them credit.”

“Good people of all political persuasions are starting to think we need to do something about this,” he said.

“The eyes of more Americans have been opened to this truth, partly because of cameras, partly because of tragedy, partly because the statistics cannot be ignored,” he said. “We cannot close our eyes anymore.”


He drew the broad outlines of a reform package that addresses problems in classrooms, courtrooms and cell blocks so that the criminal justice system is more than simply a way to sweep people from “underfunded, inadequate schools to overcrowded jails.”

The remarks highlight the growing belief in the White House that Obama might be able to work out a reform plan that could win approval in Congress and be signed into law, a sleeper prospect for legislative achievement moving up Obama’s to-do list on the heels of Tuesday’s landmark foreign policy deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

The strategy is powered in part by reform efforts from both Republicans and Democrats. Paul and fellow Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced a reform measure in recent months, as did Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Obama alluded to some of their proposals in his remarks, and plans to further highlight the issue in a trip out west on Wednesday and Thursday. He’ll do an interview with the HBO news magazine series “Vice” and tour a federal prison near Oklahoma City - the first such visit by a sitting president.


On Tuesday, White House officials argued there is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that criminal laws need to be enforced more fairly and efficiently.

“In an era of limited resources and diverse threats, there is a public safety imperative to devote the resources of the criminal justice system to the practices that are most successful at deterring crime and protecting the public,” the White House said in a news release before Obama’s speech.

The problems begin in underfunded, poor classrooms with subtle biases against some children, Obama said in a rousing speech to a fired-up crowd that interrupted him with applause at several points.

If schools let some kids act up and yet “call the police on another set of kids, that’s not the right thing to do,” he said. “If we make investments early in our children, it will reduce the need to incarcerate those kids.”

Inequities in the courtroom could be set right by giving judges more discretion in handing out sentences for nonviolent crimes, he said, calling on lawmakers to pass a sentencing reform bill and to invest in alternatives to probation and prison.

Obama also warned that most people in prison would someday be released. They should get training and treatment that will help them be better citizens, he said.

Prison officials “shouldn’t be tolerating rape in prison,” he said, and Americans shouldn’t be “making jokes about it in popular culture.”

“How are they ever going to adapt?” he asked.


“Justice is not just the absence of oppression,” Obama said, “but the presence of opportunity.”

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