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Obama goes to prison for a fairer justice system

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    President Barack Obama is led on a tour by Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels, right, and correctional officer Ronald Warlick during a visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, in El Reno, Okla., Thursday, July 16, 2015. As part of a weeklong focus on inequities in the criminal justice system, the president will meet separately Thursday with law enforcement officials and nonviolent drug offenders who are paying their debt to society at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison for male offenders near Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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OKLAHOMA CITY >> President Barack Obama got a first-hand look at the nation’s criminal justice system Thursday, touring a federal prison and meeting with incarcerated men. After peering into a sterile prison cell, he said the nation needs to reconsider the way crime is controlled and prisoners are rehabilitated.

Obama, who has vowed to make criminal justice reform a centerpiece of his closing months in office, said he also felt a kinship with some of the young inmates.

"When they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made," Obama said following his private meeting at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison for male offenders near Oklahoma City.

The president said there must be a distinction between young people "doing stupid things" and violent criminals. Young people who make mistakes, he said, could be thriving if they had access to resources and support structures "that would allow them to survive those mistakes."

Among the changes Obama is seeking is the reduction or outright elimination of severe mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders. Earlier this week, he used his presidential powers to shorten the prison sentences of 46 people convicted on charges involving drugs.

The president has also called for restoring voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, and said employers should "ban the box" that asks job applicants about their criminal histories.

The White House said Obama was the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. The presidential motorcade rolled past fences topped with multiple layers of razor wire as it entered the sprawling prison complex.

After his meeting with inmates, Obama walked past rows of empty cells secured by large grey doors. Prison officials opened cell no. 123 for the president, who gazed at its sparse trappings: a bunk bed and third bed along the wall, a toilet and sink, along with a small bookcase and three lockers.

"Three full-grown men in a 9-by-10 cell," he said.

Obama has expressed hope that Congress will send him legislation to address the issue before he leaves office in 18 months, given the level of interest in the issue among Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates.

Presidential security was no small part of Thursday’s intriguing Obama outing.

The goal of incarceration usually is to keep people with criminal histories far away from a president, not to put a president in their midst.

Who comes and goes from a prison is strictly limited and everyone’s background is known.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said "unique steps" were to be taken to protect Obama during the visit. He did not elaborate.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a 2016 presidential contender, is pushing to restore voting rights to nonviolent felons who have served their sentences. Another GOP candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, was giving a speech Thursday calling for changes that in part would give nonviolent drug offenders a better chance at rebuilding their lives.

From shortening the prison sentences of nearly four-dozen non-violent drug offenders to advocating the reduction, or outright elimination, of severe mandatory minimum sentences to visiting a federal prison, Obama this week has argued forcefully for an alternative to the continued lengthy incarceration of people convicted of crimes he said did not fit the punishment.

Overly harsh prison sentences, particularly for nonviolent drug crimes, are to blame for doubling the prison population in the past two decades, Obama said earlier this week. Half a million people were behind bars in 1980, a figure that has since quadrupled to its current total of more than 2.2 million inmates.

Obama has expressed hope that Congress will send him legislation to address the issue before he leaves office in 18 months, given the level of interest in the issue among Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates.s to advocating the reduction, or outright elimination, of severe mandatory minimum sentences to visiting a federal prison, Obama has argued forcefully this week for an alternative to the continued lengthy incarceration of people convicted of crimes he said did not fit the punishment.

Fourteen of the convicts whose sentences he commuted this week had been serving life in prison.

"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," Obama said in a speech at the NAACP’s annual convention this week. "But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence. That’s disproportionate to the price that should be paid."

Obama said taxpayers are the ones left to pay the $80 billion annual cost of locking up people who otherwise could be in rehabilitative programs for less than the cost of incarceration. Or they could be workers paying taxes, or be more involved in their children’s lives, or be role models and leaders in their communities.

He also called for restoring voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, and said employers should "ban the box" that asks job applicants about their criminal histories.

"Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it," he said.

Overly harsh prison sentences, particularly for nonviolent drug crimes, are to blame for doubling the prison population in the past two decades, Obama said. Half a million people were behind bars in 1980, a figure that has since quadrupled to its current total of more than 2.2 million inmates.

Obama has expressed hope that Congress will send him legislation to address the issue before he leaves office in 18 months, given the level of interest in the issue among Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a 2016 presidential contender, is pushing to restore voting rights to nonviolent felons who have served their sentences. Another GOP candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, was giving a speech Thursday calling for changes that in part would give nonviolent drug offenders a better chance at rebuilding their lives.

Spriggs, meanwhile, drew a distinction between violent and nonviolent crimes and said not everyone with a criminal past is kept away from the president.

"The idea that you keep the president away from all who have criminal records is … simply not true," he said.

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