POLITICS

Obama Can Do Much More To Reform Prison System, ACLU Says

The president has made a good effort, the group says -- but it's just a start.

President Barack Obama freed dozens of nonviolent federal prisoners this week, but the American Civil Liberties Union says he can and should do much more to reduce the country's bloated prison population.

"President Obama deserves congratulations for confronting one of the greatest challenges facing American society, reforming our broken criminal justice system," ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said in a statement. "But the president must take additional steps to build redemption into our criminal justice system."

The U.S. represents 5 percent of the world's population but it has 25 percent of the planet's prisoners, the ACLU reports. There are about 2.2 million Americans behind bars. 

Obama has now issued nearly 90 commutations, primarily for nonviolent drug offenders. Tens of thousands of offenders applied to have their sentences commuted. The Justice Department is especially interested in nonviolent drug offenders who have demonstrated good behavior while in jail, have served at least 10 years of their sentence and would likely receive a less severe punishment if sentenced today.

Obama should make the commutation process as quick as possible during the rest of his term, said Jesselyn McCurdy, senior legislative council for the ACLU.

"The process of putting together a packet for someone who’s interested in a commutation is onerous," she told The Huffington Post. "You have to get a lot of documents from a lot of different federal agencies to demonstrate the person has had a good disciplinary record while in prison."

 McCurdy said the president can speed the process along by telling the federal agencies involved to make sure those documents are a top priority.

During a speech at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Obama urged Congress to pass a "ban the box" law that would prevent employers from asking job applicants if they've been convicted of a felony.

"Let’s follow the growing number of our states, and cities, and private companies who’ve decided to ban the box on job applications so that former prisoners who have done their time and are now trying to get straight with society have a decent shot in a job interview," Obama said.

 McCurdy said the president doesn't have to wait for Congress to act. He can use his executive power to prevent federal employers and companies that contract with the federal government from asking potential employees about past felonies on job applications, she said.

Obama should also campaign hard for the SAFE Justice Act in the House and the Smarter Sentencing Act in the Senate, which both aim to reduce mandatory minimum sentences, McCurdy said.

 Both bills have Republican and Democratic sponsors. Obama noted the bipartisan support for reform in his remarks to the NAACP.

"This is a cause that’s bringing people in both houses of Congress together," he said. "It’s created some unlikely bedfellows. You’ve got Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. You’ve got Americans for Tax Reform and the ACLU. You’ve got the NAACP and the Koch brothers. No, you’ve got to give them credit. You’ve got to call it like you see it."

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