Speaking to a packed hall at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, President Barack Obama sounded a clear call for a top-to-bottom overhaul of the U.S. criminal justice system.
The president was in Philadelphia[hia to speak to delegates of the NAACP National Convention, which wraps up Wednesday.
Speaking about the huge financial cost of incarceration, and the inordinate social cost on generations of African-Americans, who are much more likely to be arrested and sentenced than their white counterparts, Obama said the majority of those offenses are minor drug infractions.
He estimated the changes he’s promoting could save the country $80 billion a year.
“For $80 billion, we could finance new roads, new bridges, new airports, job-training programs research and development,” he said. “We’re about to get into a big budget debate in Washington … What I couldn’t do with $80 billion. That’s a lot of money.”
The president urged members of Congress to work together to pass meaningful reforms to cut down on the incarceration rate that’s has quadrupled since 1980 and doubled in the last two decades alone — while also making sure those who deserve to be in jail are put there.
Obama called for changes in the community, the courtroom and the cellblock.
“For nonviolent drug crimes, we need to lower mandatory minimum sentences or get rid them entirely” he said. “Give judges sentencing discretion around nonviolent crimes so that potentially we could move the person who has made a mistake in a better direction.”
The corrections system also is in need of changes so that jails are more than just a place to hold criminals.
“Mass incarceration,” he said. “makes our country worse off and we need to do something about it.”
The president will travel to a federal prison this week to — in his words — shine a light on the prison situation and the overcrowding, gang activity and rape, which he says are unacceptable.
Obama also said he favors restoring the right to vote to those who have served their time behind bars.