- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 16, 2015

Amid signs Congress could act on sweeping criminal justice reform in the near future, President Obama on Thursday again called for massive changes in how the U.S. prosecutes and punishes nonviolent drug offenders.

After touring the federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma, the president bluntly said that young people who make mistakes and do drugs should not be sentenced to decades behind bars. Mr. Obama, who has admitted to using recreational drugs as a young man, is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, and the trip capped off a week in which he made criminal justice reform a focal point of his agenda.

“When they describe their youth, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different from the mistakes I made, and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made. The difference is that they did not have the kind of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes,” the president said after meeting with six inmates at the Oklahoma facility, each of whom is serving time for nonviolent drug crimes.

“We have a tendency sometimes to take for granted or think it’s normal that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system,” he continued. “It’s not normal, it’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people who make mistakes.”

Earlier this week, Mr. Obama called for specific changes to the criminal justice system, including the end of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, a federal review of whether solitary confinement in prisons should be scrapped and others.

There are clear signs that Congress may address the issue before Mr. Obama leaves office.

House Speaker John A. Boehner said Thursday that he’ll grant floor time to a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that would divert nonviolent drug dealers and offenders away from federal prisons and into treatment programs and other alternatives.

Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said too many prisoners are behind bars for “flimsy reasons.” He said he generally supports the House reform bill, which has been introduced by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, and Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, Virginia Democrat.

“We’ve got a lot of people in prison that, frankly, in my view, really don’t need to be there,” Mr. Boehner said.

There’s growing agreement in Washington and across the nation that reducing the 2.2 million prisoner population would carry immense benefits for taxpayers, communities and families.

Even those who previously supported stiff sentences for drug offenders now have changed their tune. Former President Bill Clinton told the NAACP this week that he made a mistake signing legislation that imposed lengthy jail time for drug offenders. He said his actions have made the nation’s mass incarceration problem worse, indicating he also believes it’s time for meaningful reform.

In addition to politicians of both parties, leading labor groups also have come out in favor of serious reform.

“The United States currently spends billions incarcerating millions of people, the majority of whom are people of color. These policies have resulted in a permanent criminal class. We have selectively locked people up, sealed people out and shut entire communities down. It is past time for a complete overhaul of this country’s criminal justice system,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. “Together with our allies, the labor movement is dedicated to shifting the focus away from punishment and towards educational opportunities that help people change their lives and get back on track.”

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