Obama returns to Chicago to push for criminal justice reforms

"It used to be if a kid or a group of kids was misbehaving, adults could say something to them. But now, folks don't because you don't know if they are armed," Obama said at a law enforcement conference.
By Ed Adamczyk and Doug G. Ware   |   Oct. 27, 2015 at 7:18 PM
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CHICAGO, Oct. 27 (UPI) -- President Barack Obama returned to his hometown of Chicago Tuesday to address a law enforcement conference -- where he touched on three hot button issues in the United States: Public opinion against police departments, excessive prison sentences for nonviolent offenders and gun control.

Obama's appearance at the annual International Association of Chiefs of Police conference was part of an effort to build bipartisan support for reforming the federal criminal justice system.

"Look at the statistics. Over the last 20 years, police have helped cut the violent crime rate and the homicide rate in America by almost half. It's an astonishing statistic," he said. "That doesn't mean things are perfect ... It is true that in some cities, including here in my hometown of Chicago, gun violence and homicides have spiked."

Speaking to a large crowd of law enforcement leaders, Obama said the federal government is prepared to invest in substantial changes to help eliminate biases that plague many U.S. police departments.

"Too often, law enforcement gets scapegoated for the broader failures of our society and our criminal justice system," Obama said. "We can't expect [police] to contain and control problems that the rest of us aren't willing to face or do anything about."

During his speech, Obama also pushed for wholesale changes to the nation's prison system -- where he said too many nonviolent offenders are serving long sentences that don't fit the crime.

"It's also important for us to acknowledge our prisons are crowded with not only hardcore violent offenders but also some nonviolent offenders serving very long sentences for drug crimes at taxpayers' expense," Obama said. "Right now, America is home to less than 5 percent of the world's population, but [accounts for] about 25 percent of its prisoners. Plenty of them belong there -- I don't have sympathy for dangerous, violent offenders. I don't have sympathy for folks preying on children. I've got two daughters, I care about making sure these streets are safe. So this is not some bleeding heart attitude here.

"Let's take some of the $80 billion we spend each year to keep people locked up -- not all of it, because like I said some of those folks you want behind bars -- but let's look at the system and see areas where we can use some of that money to help law enforcement," he added. "If rehabilitation programs help a prisoner become a skilled worker instead of a hardened criminal you are less likely to have to arrest that person again and again and again and again."

Obama cited various recent negative trends when it comes to criminal justice -- from Ferguson, Mo., to Charleston, S.C.

"With today's technology, if just one of your officers does something irresponsible the whole world knows about it moments later. And the countless incidents of effective police work rarely make it on the evening news," Obama said.

The third main point Obama raised at Tuesday's conference is perhaps the most controversial: Gun control. The president has repeatedly called for reforms to gun laws and said the statistics support his belief.

"Sixty percent of guns recovered in crimes come from out of state. You just gotta hop across the border," he said. "It is easier for a lot of young people in this city, and in some of your communities, to buy a gun than buy a book. It is easier in some communities to find a gun than it is to find some fresh vegetables at a supermarket. And that's why the overwhelming majority of the American people, Democrat and Republican, believe we should require national criminal background checks for anybody who wants to purchase a gun.

"It used to be if a kid or a group of kids was misbehaving, adults could say something to them. But now, folks don't because you don't know if they are armed," he added. "It's risky enough [for police] responding to a domestic violence call or a burglary in progress without having to wonder if the suspect is armed to the teeth [or] maybe has better weapons than you do."

Obama's potential successor, Hillary Clinton, has also expressed a desire to require background checks for any U.S. citizen to buy a gun.

"I want to make it very clear, this is not something that I just think of as being academic. I live on the south side of Chicago. My house is pretty close to some places where shootings take place. Because that's real, we have got to get on top of it before it becomes an accelerated trend," Obama said.

A recent report indicated 60 percent of illegal guns recovered by Chicago police between 2009 and 2013 came from out of state, notably Indiana. Nearly 400 homicides have occurred in Chicago this year, an 18.5 percent increase from the same date in 2014.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a proposal last week to reduce certain mandatory sentences for non-violent criminals -- legislation which must still clear the House and Senate. It is, however, a starting point for what could be a momentous achievement for the Obama administration and the current session of Congress.

A Washington Post/ABC News survey, released Monday, revealed that 63 percent of U.S. citizens believe mass shootings result from deficiencies in the American mental health system -- not ease of access to firearms.

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