By Melinda Clemmons
From a cellblock at El Reno Federal Penitentiary in Oklahoma on July 16, President Barack Obama, the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, spoke of his hope that his proposed criminal justice reforms will, among other positive outcomes, “perhaps most importantly, keep families intact.”
His historic visit to El Reno capped a week in which the president sought to “shine a spotlight” on the U.S. criminal justice system, which he said in a speech July 14 at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia is “particularly skewed by race and by wealth, a source of inequity that has ripple effects on families and on communities and ultimately on our nation.”
The day before his appearance at the NAACP convention, Obama granted clemency to 46 inmates, most of whom were incarcerated for non-violent offenses under mandatory minimum sentencing laws. In his speech in Philadelphia, the president said the mandatory sentencing laws for non-violent offenses are in large part responsible for the quadrupling of the number of people behind bars in the U.S. since 1980. He is proposing those mandatory minimum sentences be reduced or eliminated, allowing judges to use discretion in sentencing.
Obama noted that while the U.S. spends $80 billion every year to incarcerate 2.2 million people, there are also “costs that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.”