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Obama Proposes Changes To Criminal Justice System


President Obama is in Philadelphia this afternoon where he spoke at the NAACP's annual convention. The president said now is the time to change the criminal justice system in the U.S. The speech came one day after President Obama commuted the prison terms of 46 people serving time for nonviolent drug crimes. NPR's Jeff Brady is in Philadelphia, and, Jeff, give us more detail. What else did the president say?

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The president said he wants a juvenile and criminal justice system that is fairer, smarter and more cost-effective. He says there are disparities in the current system that are not warranted and harsh sentences for some crimes that just can't be justified. He said there's a long history of inequities in the justice system. Here's one thing that he had to say during his speech today.


BARACK OBAMA: Over the last few decades, we've also locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before for longer than ever before. And that is the real reason our prison population is so high.

BRADY: And if you look across the prison system, you can see some of the disparities in the statistics. Black people already are overrepresented among inmates. That's compared to the U.S. population as a whole. Then when you drill down into those numbers, you look at the nonviolent drug offenders, the numbers are even more disparate.

CORNISH: What exactly is the president proposing?

BRADY: He's talking about new programs, new laws. The president says his administration already has done some things to change the criminal justice system. For example, there's the clemency initiative that was started back in 2014. He's commuted nearly 90 sentences; more than half of them yesterday. And it appears that there are more to come. About 35,000 people have applied for clemency and those applications are under review. There are a few pieces of legislation in Congress that would begin some of these reforms. Already we're hearing from sponsors hoping that the president focusing on this will help move their legislation forward.

CORNISH: Is there any evidence that Republican leaders in Congress are open to this?

BRADY: You know, you look at most of these pieces of legislation and there are sponsors from both sides of the aisle. And there does seem to be a general sense that it's time to change the criminal justice system. Some of that is driven by hard numbers since the 1980s when Congress put mandatory minimum sentences in place for drug crimes. The federal prison population has increased almost ninefold. There are about 208,000 people in federal prisons now, and as we've reported before, about half of those are serving time for nonviolent drug offenses. Another issue that could have cross-party appeal - the cost of housing all those prisoners. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, federal spending on prisons increased from less than a billion back in 1980 to nearly $7 billion in 2013.

CORNISH: Jeff, what's the reaction from people there at the convention?

BRADY: Yeah, this was clearly a friendly crowd for this message - lots of applause. I talked with a few people in the audience, including Lloyd Thompson. He's president of the Shreveport, La., branch of the NAACP. Here's what he said is wrong with the criminal justice system as it exists now.

LLOYD THOMPSON: Well, I think the little thing need to be changed that if our young folks come in the court system for a $10-bag of weed, they're not a drug dealer. They're a drug user. We need to look at doing some rehabbing, be able to redirect them and get them back into society rather than give them 30 years for a $10-bag of weed.

BRADY: I heard that same message from others here. Clearly, folks at this convention are ready for significant changes to the justice system. Now we'll have to see how the rest of the country reacts to the president's call to reform the country's criminal justice system.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Jeff Brady. Jeff, thanks so much.

BRADY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.