Reducing federal sentences for nonviolent drug crimes will save taxpayers money and help minority communities, President Barack Obama said, citing support on the issue from Republican presidential contender Rand Paul.
The president has urged an overhaul of the criminal-justice system, saying too many people guilty of nonviolent crimes are imprisoned for too long and that communities of color are disproportionately affected. Depicting it as a bipartisan policy goal, he called on Congress this week to pass changes to sentencing laws by the end of the year.
“The good news is that this is one of those rare issues where we’ve got some Republican and Democratic interest as well as federal state and local interest in solving the problem,” Obama said Wednesday at a White House news conference.
He said he was “very appreciative” of the involvement of Paul, a Kentucky senator, among other lawmakers he named.
“I don’t think that the criminal justice system is, obviously, the sole source of racial tension in this country,” Obama said. “But I think it is part of a broader set of challenges that we face in creating a more perfect union.”
Obama granted clemency on Monday to 46 nonviolent drug offenders serving extended federal sentences, the most commutations any president has issued at one time since Lyndon Johnson. The Justice Department is reviewing the use of solitary confinement, and Obama said the nation shouldn’t tolerate crowding, gang activity or sexual assault in prison.
Mass incarceration in the U.S. is “driven by nonviolent drug offenses where the sentencing is completely out of proportion with the crime,” Obama said on Wednesday. “That costs taxpayers enormous amounts of money. It is debilitating to communities who are seeing huge proportions of the young men in their communities finding themselves with a criminal record, rendering them often unemployable.”
During a speech Tuesday in Philadelphia, Obama said he wants voting rights restored to people who complete their sentences, and he urged employers to “ban the box” asking job applicants about criminal convictions.
On Thursday, he’ll become the first sitting president to visit a prison when he travels to a medium-security facility in Oklahoma.
The president has other bipartisan allies in Congress. Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, are seeking to reduce prison populations through programs to release convicts early and prevent recidivism. He also cited Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, during his White House press conference.
Charles and David Koch, the billionaire Republican donors, have backed a bill introduced last month by Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, that would encourage probation rather than imprisonment for relatively minor, nonviolent offenses.
“This is one of those rare issues where we’ve got some Republican and Democratic interest as well as federal and state interest in solving the problem,” Obama said.
The commutations have drawn some criticism.
“The fact that the Department’s clemency initiative is focused solely on federal drug offenders continues this administration’s plainly unconstitutional practice of picking and choosing which laws to enforce and which to change,” 19 House Republicans, including the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, said in a letter on Tuesday to Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
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