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Obama envisions shorter sentences for nonviolent convicts

Updated: 2015-07-16 07:52
By Agencies in Washington and Philadelphia (China Daily)

US President Barack Obama laid out an expansive vision on Tuesday for fixing the US criminal justice system by focusing on communities, courtrooms and cellblocks. He announced a federal review of the use of solitary confinement and urged Congress to pass a sentencing reform bill by year's end.

In a speech to the annual convention of the NAACP civil rights group, Obama also called for voting rights to be restored to felons who have served their sentences, and said employers should stop the practice of asking job candidates about their past convictions. He said long mandatory minimum sentences now in place should be reduced - or discarded entirely.

"In far too many cases, the punishment simply doesn't fit the crime," Obama told a crowd of 3,300 in Philadelphia. Parole violators and low-level drug dealers, for example, owe a debt to society, but not a life sentence or a 20-year prison term, he said.

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

"There are some folks who need to be in jail," Obama said, but, he added, in far too many cases the punishment does not fit the crime.

With his speech to the prominent black advocacy group, Obama sought to put a spotlight on the need for new legislation as he mounted a weeklong push on criminal justice reform. A day earlier, Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders - the most commutations a president has issued on a single day in at least four decades.

Upon arriving on Tuesday in Philadelphia, Obama met with a number of former prisoners to discuss their experience re-entering society, said the White House. And on Thursday, Obama planned to put a personal face on the nation's mushrooming prison population with a visit to El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside of Oklahoma City.

The moves reflected a president eager to wield his executive power during his waning years in office to reduce harsh sentences, cut costs and correct disparities he said have disproportionally burdened minorities. Earlier in his presidency, as he spent his political capital carefully on major domestic priorities, Obama spoke cautiously and only intermittently about the need for smarter sentencing and other justice changes.


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