Washington: US President Barack Obama has urged the Congress to establish a new criminal justice system, fairer towards African-Americans and Latinos and with reduced penalties for those convicted of minor drug-related crimes.
Obama on Tuesday presented his proposal for criminal justice reform at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples, or NAACP, the nation’s leading organisation for the defence of African-American rights.
NAACP is critical of the impunity of white officers in the deaths of African-Americans under disputed circumstances.
“One in every 35 African-American men and one in every 88 Latino men is serving time. Among white men, the number is one in 214. The bottom line is that in too many places, black boys and black men, Latino boys and Latino men are treated differently under the law,” denounced Obama, amidst applause from an enthusiastic audience.
“America is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s. We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined,” said the president.
The US prison population currently stands at 2.2 million, a figure significantly higher than the 500,000 registered in 1980.
“If you are a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society. But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence,” said Obama, who attributed the increasing prison population to harsh punishments to minorities for misdemeanours.
During his speech, Obama also proposed to return voting rights to prisoners, who are denied this right in several states.
Obama’s speech comes two days before his visit to a federal prison on Thursday, the first ever to be undertaken by a president during his mandate, and a day after he commuted the sentences of 46 prisoners for non-violent crimes, related to possession or distribution of drugs.