For many years `lockemup and throwawaythekey' was the refrain of everyone who sought electoral office. There has been a shift - left and right - as we realize the tragedy we have created: the world's most punitive society. Being one of the most racist societies in history has created a culture that generates violence and perpetrates it, that creates a harsh attitude toward criminal justice. Barack Obama, the first President to visit a prison(!) discusses the issues at the NAACP annual meeting. - gwc
Remarks by the President at the NAACP Conference | whitehouse.gov
***And the good news -- and this is truly good news -- is that good people of all political persuasions are starting to think we need to do something about this.
So let’s look at the statistics. The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Think about that. Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s. We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined. And it hasn’t always been the case -- this huge explosion in incarceration rates. In 1980, there were 500,000 people behind bars in America -- half a million people in 1980. I was in college in 1980. Many of you were not born in 1980 -- that’s okay. (Laughter.) I remember 1980 -- 500,000. Today there are 2.2 million. It has quadrupled since 1980. Our prison population has doubled in the last two decades alone.
Now, we need to be honest. There are a lot of folks who belong in prison. (Applause.) If we’re going to deal with this problem and the inequities involved then we also have to speak honestly. There are some folks who need to be in jail. They may have had terrible things happen to them in their lives. We hold out the hope for redemption, but they’ve done some bad things.
Murderers, predators, rapists, gang leaders, drug kingpins -- we need some of those folks behind bars. Our communities are safer, thanks to brave police officers and hardworking prosecutors who put those violent criminals in jail. (Applause.)
And the studies show that up to a certain point, tougher prosecutors and stiffer sentences for these violent offenders contributed to the decline in violent crime over the last few decades. Although the science also indicates that you get a point of diminishing returns. But it is important for us to recognize that violence in our communities is serious and that historically, in fact, the African American community oftentimes was under-policed rather than over-policed. Folks were very interested in containing the African American community so it couldn’t leave segregated areas, but within those areas there wasn’t enough police presence.
But here’s the thing: Over the last few decades, we’ve also locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before. (Applause.) And that is the real reason our prison population is so high. In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime. (Applause.) If you’re a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society. You have to be held accountable and make amends. But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence. (Applause.) That's disproportionate to the price that should be paid.
And by the way, the taxpayers are picking up the tab for that price. (Applause.) Every year, we spend $80 billion to keep folks incarcerated -- $80 billion. Now, just to put that in perspective, for $80 billion, we could have universal preschool for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in America. (Applause.) That's what $80 billion buys. (Applause.) For $80 billion, we could double the salary of every high school teacher in America. (Applause.) For $80 billion, we could finance new roads and new bridges and new airports, job training programs, research and development. (Applause.) We're about to get in a big budget debate in Washington -- what I couldn’t do with $80 billion. (Laughter.) It’s a lot of money. For what we spend to keep everyone locked up for one year, we could eliminate tuition at every single one of our public colleges and universities. (Applause.)
As Republican Senator and presidential candidate Rand Paul has said -- (laughter) -- no, and to his credit, he’s been consistent on this issue -- imprisoning large numbers of nonviolent drug offenders for long periods of time, “costs the taxpayers money, without making them any safer.”