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Obama: 'Mass incarceration makes our country worse off'

By Danielle Haynes
Obama: 'Mass incarceration makes our country worse off'
President Barack Obama departs the White House in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. Obama was on his way to Philadelphia to speak to the NAACP National Conference, where he called for sweeping reforms to the criminal justice system. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

PHILADELPHIA, July 14 (UPI) -- One day after commuting the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday called for sweeping reform of the criminal justice system, including eliminating long mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders.

Speaking at the NAACP's annual convention in Philadelphia, Obama said reform must happen in three places -- the community, the courtrooms and the cellblocks.

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He said there's been bipartisan support for an overhaul of the system, thanks in part to some staggering statistics. In 1980, there were 500,000 people in American prisons; that's now up to 2.2. million.

The United States also has more people incarcerated than the 35 top European countries and four times more than China.

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"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," Obama said, adding that often the punishment doesn't fit the crime.

And the taxpayer picks up the tab, he said. It costs $80 billion each year to keep everyone in prison, the same amount it would cost to double the salary of every high school teacher in the country.

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He said stopping this trend starts in the community, where investments should be made in children. He called for juvenile offenders to be treated not as future prisoners but as future taxpayers.

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Additionally, Obama said changes should be made in the courtroom, specifically the elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent crimes. He called on Congress to pass legislation doing so by the end of the year.

Finally he said reforms should be made in prisons, not only regarding conditions and overcrowding, but also by providing prisoners with training and keeping them out of solitary confinement.

"If those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? Our prisons should be a place where we can train people for skills that can help them find a job, not train them to become more hardened criminals," Obama said.

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"Justice is not only the absence of oppression, it is the presence of opportunity," he said. "Justice is giving every child a shot at a great education no matter what zip code they're born into. Justice is giving everyone willing to work hard a good job, good wages no matter what their name is, what their skin color is or where they live."

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