PHILADELPHIA • US President Barack Obama, ahead of the first visit by an American leader to a prison, has called for a sweeping bipartisan effort to fix what he called "a broken system" of criminal justice in the country.
He said too many Americans, especially a whole generation of young black and Hispanic men, had been locked up for too long.
In a long and at times passionate address to a convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, Mr Obama said the mass incarceration of the past two decades had gone too far and left many communities devastated.
He tied what he called the bias built into the system to the racially charged upheaval in places like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore. "In recent years, the eyes of more Americans have been opened to this truth partly because of cameras, partly because of tragedy, partly because the statistics cannot be ignored," he said.
"We can't close our eyes any more. 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."
He endorsed efforts to "ban the box", referring to the question many employers ask applicants about past convictions, and said those who serve their sentences "should be able to vote".
Mr Obama's speech was intended to build on a movement for change that has crossed party lines. Republican and Democratic lawmakers have teamed up, supported by liberal and conservative advocacy groups, to propose measures to overhaul the system.
Mr Obama singled out two Republicans who have been leading legislative efforts - senators Rand Paul and John Cornyn. His speech came a day after he commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent prisoners, bringing his total to 89, though still just a tiny fraction of those who have applied for clemency.
Today, Mr Obama will go to Oklahoma to become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, where he will talk about the need for more humane conditions.
While emphasising that the police do heroic work and that many people deserve to be locked up, he outlined a series of changes he said Congress should consider.
Among other things, he said the country should focus more resources on early childhood education to prevent young people from straying in the first place.
He called for a sentencing overhaul Bill to be passed this year that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences "or get rid of them entirely", favouring treatment or other alternatives for many drug offenders.
He called for better conditions for prisoners, saying: "They are also Americans."
He deplored overcrowding. He said he had asked for a review of solitary confinement, declaring that it was "not going to make us safer" to hold an inmate alone in a cell for 23 hours a day.
And he condemned prison rape and said it should be treated more seriously. "We shouldn't be making jokes about it in our popular culture," he said. "That's no joke."
He also said the United States needed to make it easier for offenders to re-enter society after prison. He endorsed efforts to "ban the box", referring to the question many employers ask applicants about past convictions, and said those who serve their sentences "should be able to vote".
In making his case, he noted that the US has a far higher incarceration rate than China or Europe and that black and Hispanic men "are more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained".
But he also made a financial argument. With the US$80 billion (S$108 billion) spent on incarceration every year, he said, the US could instead provide universal pre-school for every three-year-old and four-year-old, or double the salaries of every high school teacher in America.
NEW YORK TIMES