President Obama toured a federal prison in Oklahoma on Thursday and said the nation needs to reconsider policies that contribute to a huge spike in the number of people behind bars.
In an unprecedented visit by a sitting president, Obama met with half a dozen inmates at the El Reno prison, outside Oklahoma City. The trip was part of a weeklong push by the White House to focus attention on the president’s call for criminal justice reform.
Earlier this week, Obama spoke to an NAACP conference in Philadelphia, where he noted the U.S. prison population has quadrupled since 1980. Keeping more than 2 million Americans behind bars costs taxpayers some $80 billion a year.
“We have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to both control crime and to rehabilitate individuals,” Obama said during his El Reno visit.
“There are people who need to be in prison,” he added. “And I don’t have tolerance for violent criminals.” But he argued it is time to change laws that impose lengthy mandatory sentences on nonviolent drug offenders, who are disproportionately black and Latino.
On Monday, the president commuted the sentences of 46 federal inmates, most of whom were serving lengthy terms for drug offenses. He’s also calling for improved conditions inside prisons, and for steps to help young people before they run afoul of the law.
After meeting with inmates in El Reno, Obama told reporters, “These are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made.” What distinguishes many convicts, he says, is a lack of support and second chances.
The spike in incarceration rates since 1980 has also placed a strain on prison guards and facilities. Obama peered into a 9-by-10-foot cell that can house up to three inmates at a time. “Overcrowding like that is something that has to be addressed,” he said.
The president praised the Oklahoma facility for its job-training and educational offerings. But he added that help comes too late for many inmates.
“The question is not only how do we make sure that we sustain those programs here in the prison,” Obama said. “But how do we make sure that those same kinds of institutional supports are there for kids and teenagers before they get into the criminal justice system.”