President Barack Obama visited an Oklahoma federal prison Thursday and emphasized that policies that resulted in an escalating number of prisoners should be reassessed.
Obama’s visit to the El Reno prison, outside Oklahoma City, is the first for any sitting president. He met with six inmates during the visit.
At a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) conference earlier this week, Obama expressed his concern about the growing population in U.S. prisons. He said that the number of inmates to be put behind bars has quadrupled since 1980. Taxpayers end up paying $80 billion a year for keeping almost 2 million Americans in jail, as reported by NPR.
Obama met with six inmates, all of who were convicted on drug charges, and held a round table discussion with them.
Regarding prison and sentence reform, he said, “What is normal is young people make mistakes,” and that the only difference between the inmates and most Americans are “resources,” and “social support structures.”
The rest of the prisoners, however, had been transferred to another prison.
“Every single one of them emphasized the fact that they had done something wrong, they are prepared to take responsibility for it, but they also urged us to think about how society could’ve reached them earlier on in life to keep them out of trouble,” Obama said.
“This is part of our effort to highlight both the challenges and opportunities we face with respect to the criminal justice system,” he further said.
On Monday, Obama commuted the sentences of 46 inmates, saying they were not “hardened criminals” and that the penalties imposed on them were severer than the crimes they had committed.
After his visit to the facility, he said, “I think we have a tendency sometimes to almost take for granted or think it’s normal that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system. It’s not normal. It’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things.”
According to ABC News, Obama said that the difference between him and the inmates he met were the support system and the second chances he received in his life. “There but for the grace of God,” he said.
Obama’s push for prison reforms comes almost twenty years after former President Bill Clinton introduced stringent federal sentencing rules that led to more arrests and imprisonments in the following years.
In an interview with CNN, Clinton spoke about his involvement in the move.
“The problem is the way it was written and implemented is we cast too wide a net and we had too many people in prison,” Clinton said. “And we wound up…putting so many people in prison that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives.”
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