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President Obama’s Prison Visit Caps Big Week for Justice Reform

July 16, 2015
It's been a big week for criminal justice reform.

“President Barack Obama’s tour of El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma on Thursday, the first such visit made to a prison by a sitting president, caps a momentous week for the criminal justice reform movement,” reports Al Jazeera America.

On Monday, the Obama administration announced that 46 individuals imprisoned for non-violent drug offenses and who had already served 10 years would receive clemency, as part of a broader push to reform overly harsh sentencing guidelines. Speaking to a gathering of the NAACP on Wednesday, Obama highlighted the racial disparities in the criminal justice system and called for a full-scale legislative overhaul to address disproportionate sentencing for people convicted of non-violent offenses.

In Congress, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers is working on several pieces of legislation that would institute wide-ranging reforms, from encouraging the use of probation for non-violent offenders to giving judges more discretion in handing down sentences.

Reformers have welcomed the momentum on the issue, but some have also cautioned that the federal reforms being considered would only be the first step in addressing the vast scale of mass incarceration.

Approximately 2.2 million people are currently held behind bars in the United States, according to statistics from the Justice Department, with 700,000 detained in local jails, 1.3 million in state prison and only 215,000 locked up in the federal system — the relatively small population that congressional reforms would target.

And while about half of federal prisoners are serving sentences for drug crimes, the figure is only 16 percent for state prisons, according to figures compiled by The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group.


“I hope at the very least we don’t categorically exclude violent offenders from the conversation,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project. “If we’re going to make short-term progress on low-level drug offenders, I would hope the kinds of question we ask about them — ‘Is prison the only solution? How much time in prison is appropriate? How much public safety are we producing? — are the same questions we should be asking for more serious offenders.”

Read the full article at Al Jazeera America.

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