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Obama Calls for Changes to Criminal Justice System

U.S. President Barack Obama, the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, speaks during his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside Oklahoma City, July 16, 2015.
U.S. President Barack Obama, the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, speaks during his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside Oklahoma City, July 16, 2015.
Obama Calls for Changes to Criminal Justice System
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President Barack Obama is calling for major changes to the American criminal justice system. He says problems in the current system are ones that the country can no longer ignore.

"In far too many cases," Mr. Obama said, "the punishment simply doesn't fit the crime." He spoke in Philadelphia this week at a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP. The organization works in support of racial equality throughout the United States.

The president said the US jails as many people as the top 35 European nations combined. Currently, 2.2 million people are in held in US prisons. African-Americans and Latinos are jailed for non-violent drug crimes at much higher rates than other groups of people.

"Our criminal justice system isn't as smart as it should be," Mr. Obama said. "It's not keeping us safe as it should be. It is not as fair as it should be. Mass incarceration makes our country worse off."

In his speech, the president suggested either changing or removing laws that require courts to give jail sentences as punishment for non-violent drug crimes. He also said there should be more job training programs for people while they are in prison.

In addition, Mr. Obama announced that the Department of Justice would examine the use of ‘solitary confinement’ in US prisons. This is a method of punishment where prisoners are placed alone in small rooms for long periods. Studies have shown that solitary confinement can have damaging psychological effects on prisoners.

The president urged Congress to approve a sentencing reform bill by the end of the year. He admitted that many people need to be in prison, among them "murderers, predators, rapists [and] gang leaders." However, he said that in too many cases, those enforcing the law treat young blacks and Latino men differently than white Americans.

He said African Americans and Latinos received longer jail sentences than whites for similar crimes. "About one in every 35 African American men, and one out of every 88 Latino men, is [in prison] right now,"he added.

His speech came a day after he commuted the jail time of 46 federal prisoners. Their sentences were reduced or cancelled. Each of the prisoners was sent to jail for a non-violent drug crime. The president's action was part of his effort to reform the criminal justice system.

The 46 prisoners were in jail for crimes involving the drug crack-cocaine. The minimum time in prison for such crimes is much higher than for crimes related to regular cocaine. Most of the prisoners would already be free if they had been sent to prison today, the Obama administration said. Fourteen were serving life prison sentences.

"These men and women were not hard criminals," the president said. "I believe, at its heart, America is a nation of second chances, and I believe these [people] deserve their second chance."

The administration said Mr. Obama would be willing to commute more sentences in the coming months if the conditions were right. "The statistics cannot be ignored. We cannot close our eyes anymore," he said.

I’m Pete Musto.

This report was based on a story from Pete Musto adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

mass incarcerationn. large numbers of people put in prison

sentencen. the punishment given by a court of law

minimumadj. least or lowest amount

psychological adj. of or relating to the mind

predatorn. someone who wants to use, control, or harm other people in some way

gangn. a group of people who take part in illegal activity

commutev. to reduce or cancel a form of punishment

crack-cocainen. a processed form of the drug cocaine

Now it's your turn. How severely does your country punish people who use and sell drugs? Are the punishments more severe for violent criminals? Let us know in the comments section.