President Barack Obama urged reform of the US criminal justice system Saturday, saying much of it “remains unfair” and that punishments should correspond to the severity of crimes.
“The United States is home to five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners,” Obama said in his weekly radio address. “Every year, we spend $80 billion to keep people locked up.”
The president said the reason the United States has such a high prison population — 2.2 million — is that more non-violent offenders have been put behind bars over the past decades than ever before.
Despite efforts to address the matter, “much of our criminal justice system remains unfair,” Obama said. “In recent years, more of our eyes have been opened to this truth. We can’t close them anymore.”
He called on the Republican-controlled Congress to send reform bills to his desk to sign into law and said he would be traveling around the country to highlight the issue in the coming weeks.
Among other things, “justice means that the punishment should fit the crime,” Obama said.
“And justice means allowing our fellow Americans who have made mistakes to pay their debt to society, and rejoin their community as active, rehabilitated citizens.”
Obama’s comments came as the United States prepares to release thousands of prisoners considered at low risk of returning to crime, as part of an effort to ease prison overcrowding and redress overly harsh sentences.
The measure stands to benefit petty criminals and drug users sentenced to long prison terms for minor, non-violent offenses.
The release comes after the US Sentencing Commission, which sets policy for federal crimes, reduced its sentencing guidelines for drug possession.
While the US population has increased by 30 percent since 1980, the country’s prison population jumped 800 percent during the same period.
The result is a record rate of incarceration for an industrialized country, which has overburdened the federal prison system.