“The Punishment Simply Does Not Fit The Crime”: President Obama on Criminal Justice Reform (VIDEO)

George Lavender

Pres­i­dent Oba­ma’s remarks to the NAACP via the White​house​.gov​.org

THE PRES­I­DENT: Hel­lo, NAACP! (Applause.) Ah, it’s good to be back. (Applause.) How you all doing today? (Applause.) You doing fine? 

AUDI­ENCE: Yes!

THE PRES­I­DENT: You look fine. (Applause.) All right, every­body have a seat. I got some stuff to say. (Applause.) I’ve got some stuff to say. 

AUDI­ENCE MEM­BER: We love you!

THE PRES­I­DENT: I love you back. You know that. (Applause.)

So, see, now, when­ev­er peo­ple have, like, lit­tle signs, you all got to write it big­ger, because I’m get­ting old now. (Laugh­ter.) And I like that pic­ture of me. That’s very nice. Thank you. (Applause.)

Let’s get some­thing out of the way up front. I am not singing today.

AUDI­ENCE: Awww –

THE PRES­I­DENT: Not singing. Although I will say your board sang to me as I came in for the pho­to­graph. (Laugh­ter.) So I know there’s some good voic­es in the auditorium. 

Let me also say what every­body knows but doesn’t always want to say out loud – you all would rather have Michelle here. (Laugh­ter.) I under­stand. I don’t blame you. But I will do my best to fill her shoes. (Laugh­ter.) And she sends every­body her love. And Malia and Sasha say hi, as well. (Applause.)

I want to thank your chair, Roslyn Brock. I want to thank your pres­i­dent, Cor­nell Brooks. I want to thank your Gov­er­nor, Tom Wolf, who’s doing out­stand­ing work and was here. (Applause.) The May­or of Philadel­phia, Michael Nut­ter, who’s been a great friend and ally. (Applause.) Gov­er­nor Dan Mal­loy of Con­necti­cut, who’s here today. (Applause.) And some out­stand­ing mem­bers of Con­gress who are here. I want to just say thank you to all of you for your love, for your sup­port, but most impor­tant­ly, for the work that you are doing in your com­mu­ni­ties all across the coun­try every sin­gle day. (Applause.)

It’s not always received with a lot of fan­fare. Some­times it’s lone­ly work; some­times it’s hard work; some­times it’s frus­trat­ing work. But it’s nec­es­sary work. And it builds on a tra­di­tion of this orga­ni­za­tion that reshaped the nation. 

For 106 years, the NAACP has worked to close the gaps between the words of our found­ing that we are all cre­at­ed equal, endowed by our Cre­ator with cer­tain unalien­able rights – those words try to match those with the real­i­ties that we live each and every day. 

In your first cen­tu­ry, this orga­ni­za­tion stood up to lynch­ing and Jim Crow and seg­re­ga­tion; helped to shep­herd a Civ­il Rights Act and a Vot­ing Rights Act. I would not be here, and so many oth­ers would not be here, with­out the NAACP. (Applause.)

In your sec­ond cen­tu­ry, we’ve worked togeth­er to give more of our chil­dren a shot at a qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion; to help more fam­i­lies rise up out of pover­ty; to pro­tect future gen­er­a­tions from envi­ron­men­tal dam­age; to cre­ate fair hous­ing; to help more work­ers find the pur­pose of a good job. And togeth­er, we’ve made real progress – includ­ing a My Brother’s Keep­er ini­tia­tive to give more young peo­ple a fair shot in life; includ­ing the pas­sage of a law that declares health care is not a priv­i­lege for the few, but a right for all of us. (Applause.)

We made progress, but our work is not done. By just about every mea­sure, the life chances for black and His­pan­ic youth still lag far behind those of their white peers. Our kids, America’s chil­dren, so often are iso­lat­ed, with­out hope, less like­ly to grad­u­ate from high school, less like­ly to earn a col­lege degree, less like­ly to be employed, less like­ly to have health insur­ance, less like­ly to own a home. 

Part of this is a lega­cy of hun­dreds of years of slav­ery and seg­re­ga­tion, and struc­tur­al inequal­i­ties that com­pound­ed over gen­er­a­tions. (Applause.) It did not hap­pen by acci­dent. (Applause.) Part­ly it’s a result of con­tin­u­ing, if some­times more sub­tle, big­otry – whether in who gets called back for a job inter­view, or who gets sus­pend­ed from school, or what neigh­bor­hood you are able to rent an apart­ment in – which, by the way, is why our recent ini­tia­tive to strength­en the aware­ness and effec­tive­ness of fair hous­ing laws is so impor­tant. (Applause.) So we can’t be sat­is­fied or not sat­is­fied until the oppor­tu­ni­ty gap is closed for every­body in Amer­i­ca. Everybody. 

But today, I want to focus on one aspect of Amer­i­can life that remains par­tic­u­lar­ly skewed by race and by wealth, a source of inequity that has rip­ple effects on fam­i­lies and on com­mu­ni­ties and ulti­mate­ly on our nation – and that is our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. (Applause.)

Now, this is not a new top­ic. I know some­times folks dis­cov­er these things like they just hap­pened. There’s a long his­to­ry of inequity in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem in Amer­i­ca. When I was in the state leg­is­la­ture in Illi­nois, we worked to make sure that we had video­tap­ing of inter­ro­ga­tions because there were some prob­lems there. We set up racial pro­fil­ing laws to pre­vent the kind of bias in traf­fic stops that too many peo­ple expe­ri­ence. Since my first cam­paign, I’ve talked about how, in too many cas­es, our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem ends up being a pipeline from under­fund­ed, inad­e­quate schools to over­crowd­ed jails. (Applause.)

What has changed, though, is that, 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, we can’t close our eyes any­more. 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 1980500,000. 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.” 

Rough­ly one-third of the Jus­tice Department’s bud­get now goes toward incar­cer­a­tion – one-third. And there are out­stand­ing pub­lic ser­vants at our Jus­tice Depart­ment, start­ing with our out­stand­ing Attor­ney Gen­er­al, Loret­ta Lynch – (applause) – and we’ve got some great pros­e­cu­tors here today – and they do out­stand­ing work – so many of them. But every dol­lar they have to spend keep­ing non­vi­o­lent drug offend­ers in prison is a dol­lar they can’t spend going after drug king­pins, or track­ing down ter­ror­ists, or hir­ing more police and giv­ing them the resources that would allow them to do a more effec­tive job com­mu­ni­ty policing. 

And then, of course, there are costs that can’t be mea­sured in dol­lars and cents. Because the sta­tis­tics on who gets incar­cer­at­ed show that by a wide mar­gin, it dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impacts com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. African Amer­i­cans and Lati­nos make up 30 per­cent of our pop­u­la­tion; they make up 60 per­cent of our inmates. About one in every 35 African Amer­i­can men, one in every 88 Lati­no men is serv­ing time right now. Among white men, that num­ber is one in 214

The bot­tom line is that in too many places, black boys and black men, Lati­no boys and Lati­no men expe­ri­ence being treat­ed dif­fer­ent­ly under the law. (Applause.)

And I want to be clear – this is not just anec­dote. This is not just bar­ber­shop talk. A grow­ing body of research shows that peo­ple of col­or are more like­ly to be stopped, frisked, ques­tioned, charged, detained. African Amer­i­cans are more like­ly to be arrest­ed. They are more like­ly to be sen­tenced to more time for the same crime. (Applause.) And one of the con­se­quences of this is, around one mil­lion fathers are behind bars. Around one in nine African Amer­i­can kids has a par­ent in prison. 

What is that doing to our com­mu­ni­ties? What’s that doing to those chil­dren? Our nation is being robbed of men and women who could be work­ers and tax­pay­ers, could be more active­ly involved in their children’s lives, could be role mod­els, could be com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers, and right now they’re locked up for a non-vio­lent offense. 

So our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem isn’t as smart as it should be. It’s not keep­ing us as safe as it should be. It is not as fair as it should be. Mass incar­cer­a­tion makes our coun­try worse off, and we need to do some­thing about it. (Applause.)

But here’s the good news.

AUDI­ENCE MEM­BER: All right, good news.

THE PRES­I­DENT: Good news. Don’t get me preach­ing now. (Laugh­ter.) I am feel­ing more hope­ful today because even now, when, let’s face it, it seems like Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats can­not agree on any­thing – (laugh­ter) – a lot of them agree on this. In fact, today, back in Wash­ing­ton, Repub­li­can sen­a­tors from Utah and Texas are join­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tors from New Jer­sey and Rhode Island to talk about how Con­gress can pass mean­ing­ful crim­i­nal jus­tice reform this year. (Applause.) That’s good news. That is good news. Good news. 

That doesn’t hap­pen very often. And it’s not just sen­a­tors. This is a cause that’s bring­ing peo­ple in both hous­es of Con­gress togeth­er. It’s cre­at­ed some unlike­ly bed­fel­lows. You’ve got Van Jones and Newt Gin­grich. (Laugh­ter.) You’ve got Amer­i­cans for Tax Reform and the ACLU. You’ve got the NAACP and the Koch broth­ers. (Laugh­ter.) No, you’ve got to give them cred­it. You’ve got to call it like you see it. (Laugh­ter.) There are states from Texas and South Car­oli­na to Cal­i­for­nia and Con­necti­cut who have act­ed to reduce their prison pop­u­la­tions over the last five years and seen their crime rates fall. (Applause.) That’s good news.

My admin­is­tra­tion has tak­en steps on our own to reduce our fed­er­al prison pop­u­la­tion. So I signed a bill reduc­ing the 100 – 1 sen­tenc­ing dis­par­i­ty between crack and pow­der cocaine. (Applause.) I’ve com­mut­ed the sen­tences of dozens of peo­ple sen­tenced under old drug laws that we now rec­og­nize were unfair, and yes­ter­day I announced that I’m com­mut­ing dozens more. (Applause.)

Under the lead­er­ship of Attor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er – now con­tin­ued by Loret­ta Lynch – fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tors got what he called Smart on Crime,” which is refo­cus­ing efforts on the worst offend­ers, pur­su­ing manda­to­ry min­i­mum sen­tences 20 per­cent less often than they did the year before. The idea is you don’t always have to charge the max. To be a good pros­e­cu­tor, you need to be pro­por­tion­ate. And it turns out that we’re solv­ing just as many cas­es and there are just as many plea bar­gains, and it’s work­ing. It’s just that we’ve elim­i­nat­ed some of the excess.

And recent­ly, some­thing extra­or­di­nary hap­pened. For the first time in 40 years, America’s crime rate and incar­cer­a­tion rate both went down at the same time. That hap­pened last year. (Applause.)

So there’s some momen­tum build­ing for reform. There’s evi­dence mount­ing for why we need reform. Now I want to spend the rest of my time just lay­ing out some basic prin­ci­ples, some sim­ple ideas for what reform should look like, because we’re just at the begin­ning of this process and we need to make sure that we stay with it. And I’m going to focus on what hap­pens in three places – in the com­mu­ni­ty, in the court­room, and in the cell block. 

So I want to begin with the com­mu­ni­ty because I believe crime is like any oth­er epi­dem­ic –- the best time to stop it is before it even starts. (Applause.) And I’m going to go ahead and say what I’ve said a hun­dred times before or a thou­sand times before, and what you’ve heard me say before, if we make invest­ments ear­ly in our chil­dren, we will reduce the need to incar­cer­ate those kids. (Applause.)

So one study found that for every dol­lar we invest in pre‑K, we save at least twice that down the road in reduced crime. Get­ting a teenag­er a job for the sum­mer costs a frac­tion of what it costs to lock him up for 15 years. (Applause.) Invest­ing in our com­mu­ni­ties makes sense. It saves tax­pay­er mon­ey if we are con­sis­tent about it, and if we rec­og­nize that every child deserve oppor­tu­ni­ty – not just some, not just our own. (Applause.)

What doesn’t make sense is treat­ing entire neigh­bor­hoods as lit­tle more than dan­ger zones where we just sur­round them. We ask police to go in there and do the tough job of try­ing to con­tain the hope­less­ness when we are not will­ing to make the invest­ments to help lift those com­mu­ni­ties out of hope­less­ness. (Applause.) That’s not just a police prob­lem; that’s a soci­etal prob­lem. (Applause.)

Places like West Philly, or West Bal­ti­more, or Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri – they’re part of Amer­i­ca, too. They’re not sep­a­rate. (Applause.) They’re part of Amer­i­ca like any­where else. The kids there are Amer­i­can kids, just like your kids and my kids. So we’ve got to make sure boys and girls in those com­mu­ni­ties are loved and cher­ished and sup­port­ed and nur­tured and invest­ed in. (Applause.) And we have to have the same stan­dards for those chil­dren as we have for our own children. 

If you are a par­ent, you know that there are times where boys and girls are going to act out in school. And the ques­tion is, are we let­ting prin­ci­pals and par­ents deal with one set of kids and we call the police on anoth­er set of kids. That’s not the right thing to do. (Applause.)

We’ve got to make sure our juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem remem­bers that kids are dif­fer­ent. Don’t just tag them as future crim­i­nals. Reach out to them as future cit­i­zens. (Applause.)

And even as we rec­og­nize that police offi­cers do one of the tough­est, bravest jobs around – (applause) – and as we do every­thing in our pow­er to keep those police offi­cers safe on the job – I’ve talked about this – we have to restore trust between our police and some of the com­mu­ni­ties where they serve. (Applause.) And a good place to start is mak­ing sure com­mu­ni­ties around the coun­try adopt the rec­om­men­da­tions from the task force I set up – that includ­ed law enforce­ment, but also includ­ed young peo­ple from New York and from Fer­gu­son, and they were able to arrive at a con­sen­sus around things like bet­ter train­ing, bet­ter data col­lec­tion – to make sure that polic­ing is more effec­tive and more account­able, but is also more unbi­ased. (Applause.)

So these are steps in the com­mu­ni­ty that will lead to few­er folks being arrest­ed in the first place. Now, they won’t elim­i­nate crime entire­ly. There’s going to be crime. That’s why the sec­ond place we need to change is in the court­room. (Applause.)

For non­vi­o­lent drug crimes, we need to low­er long manda­to­ry min­i­mum sen­tences – or get rid of them entire­ly. (Applause.) Give judges some dis­cre­tion around non­vi­o­lent crimes so that, poten­tial­ly, we can steer a young per­son who has made a mis­take in a bet­ter direction. 

We should pass a sen­tenc­ing reform bill through Con­gress this year. (Applause.) We need to ask pros­e­cu­tors to use their dis­cre­tion to seek the best pun­ish­ment, the one that’s going to be most effec­tive, instead of just the longest pun­ish­ment. We should invest in alter­na­tives to prison, like drug courts and treat­ment and pro­ba­tion pro­grams – (applause) – which ulti­mate­ly can save tax­pay­ers thou­sands of dol­lars per defen­dant each year. 

Now, even if we’re lock­ing up few­er peo­ple, even if we are reform­ing sen­tenc­ing guide­lines, as I’ve said before, some crim­i­nals still deserve to go to jail. And as Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor John Cornyn has remind­ed us, vir­tu­al­ly all of the peo­ple incar­cer­at­ed in our pris­ons will even­tu­al­ly some­day be released.” And that’s why the third place we need to reform is in the cell block. 

So on Thurs­day, I will be the first sit­ting Pres­i­dent to vis­it a fed­er­al prison. (Applause.) And I’m going to shine a spot­light on this issue, because while the peo­ple in our pris­ons have made some mis­takes – and some­times big mis­takes – they are also Amer­i­cans, and we have to make sure that as they do their time and pay back their debt to soci­ety that we are increas­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty that they can turn their lives around. (Applause.)

That doesn’t mean that we will turn everybody’s life around. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some hard cas­es. But it does mean that we want to be in a posi­tion in which if some­body in the midst of impris­on­ment rec­og­nizes the error of their ways, is in the process of reflect­ing about where they’ve been and where they should be going, we’ve got to make sure that they’re in a posi­tion to make the turn. 

And that’s why we should not tol­er­ate con­di­tions in prison that have no place in any civ­i­lized coun­try. (Applause.) We should not be tol­er­at­ing over­crowd­ing in prison. We should not be tol­er­at­ing gang activ­i­ty in prison. We should not be tol­er­at­ing rape in prison. And we shouldn’t be mak­ing jokes about it in our pop­u­lar cul­ture. That’s no joke. These things are unac­cept­able. (Applause.)

What’s more, I’ve asked my Attor­ney Gen­er­al to start a review of the overuse of soli­tary con­fine­ment across Amer­i­can pris­ons. (Applause.) The social sci­ence shows that an envi­ron­ment like that is often more like­ly to make inmates more alien­at­ed, more hos­tile, poten­tial­ly more vio­lent. Do we real­ly think it makes sense to lock so many peo­ple alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, some­times for months or even years at a time? That is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger. And if those indi­vid­u­als are ulti­mate­ly released, how are they ever going to adapt? It’s not smart.

Our pris­ons should be a place where we can train peo­ple for skills that can help them find a job, not train them to become more hard­ened crim­i­nals. (Applause.)

Look, I don’t want to pre­tend like this is all easy. But some places are doing bet­ter than oth­ers. Mont­gomery Coun­ty, Mary­land put a job train­ing cen­ter inside the prison walls – (applause) – to give folks a head start in think­ing about what might you do oth­er­wise than com­mit­ting crime. That’s a good idea. 

Here’s anoth­er good idea – one with bipar­ti­san sup­port in Con­gress: Let’s reward pris­on­ers with reduced sen­tences if they com­plete pro­grams that make them less like­ly to com­mit a repeat offense. (Applause.) Let’s invest in inno­v­a­tive new approach­es to link for­mer pris­on­ers with employ­ers and help them stay on track. Let’s fol­low the grow­ing num­ber of our states and cities and pri­vate com­pa­nies who have decid­ed to Ban the Box” on job appli­ca­tions – (applause) – 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. (Applause.) And if folks have served their time, and they’ve reen­tered soci­ety, they should be able to vote. (Applause.)

Com­mu­ni­ties that give our young peo­ple every shot at suc­cess; courts that are tough but fair; pris­ons that rec­og­nize even­tu­al­ly the major­i­ty will be released and so seek to pre­pare these return­ing cit­i­zens to grab that sec­ond chance – that’s where we need to build. 

But I want to add this. We can’t ask our police, or our pros­e­cu­tors, or our prison guards, or our judges to bear the entire bur­den of con­tain­ing and con­trol­ling prob­lems that the rest of us are not fac­ing up to and will­ing to do some­thing about. (Applause.)

So, yes, we have to stand up to those who are deter­mined to slash invest­ments in our com­mu­ni­ties at any cost – cut­ting preschool pro­grams, cut­ting job-train­ing pro­grams, cut­ting afford­able hous­ing pro­grams, cut­ting com­mu­ni­ty polic­ing pro­grams. That’s short­sight­ed. Those invest­ments make this coun­try strong. (Applause.) We’ve got to invest in oppor­tu­ni­ty more than ever. 

An African Amer­i­can man born rough­ly 25 years ago has just a one-in-two chance of being employed today. More than one in three African Amer­i­can chil­dren are grow­ing up in pover­ty. When America’s unem­ploy­ment rate was 9.5 per­cent, when I first came into office, as it was going up, we prop­er­ly rec­og­nized this is a cri­sis. Right now, the unem­ploy­ment rate among African Amer­i­cans is 9.5 per­cent. What should we call that? It is a cri­sis. And we have to be just as con­cerned about con­tin­u­ing to lift up job oppor­tu­ni­ties for these young peo­ple. (Applause.)

So today, I’ve been talk­ing about the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, but we have to rec­og­nize that it’s not some­thing we can view in iso­la­tion. Any sys­tem that allows us to turn a blind eye to hope­less­ness and despair, that’s not a jus­tice sys­tem, it is an injus­tice sys­tem. (Applause.) But that is an exten­sion and a reflec­tion of some broad­er deci­sions that we’re mak­ing as a soci­ety. And that has to change. That has to change. 

What the marchers on Wash­ing­ton knew, what the marchers in Sel­ma knew, what folks like Julian Bond knew, what the marchers in this room still know, is that jus­tice is not only the absence of oppres­sion, it is the pres­ence of oppor­tu­ni­ty. (Applause.)
Jus­tice is giv­ing every child a shot at a great edu­ca­tion no mat­ter what zip code they’re born into. Jus­tice is giv­ing every­one will­ing to work hard the chance at a good job with good wages, no mat­ter what their name is, what their skin col­or is, where they live. 

Fifty years after the Vot­ing Rights Act, jus­tice is pro­tect­ing that right for every Amer­i­can. (Applause.) Jus­tice is liv­ing up to the com­mon creed that says, I am my brother’s keep­er and my sister’s keep­er. Jus­tice is mak­ing sure every young per­son knows they are spe­cial and they are impor­tant and that their lives mat­ter – not because they heard it in a hash­tag, but because of the love they feel every sin­gle day – (applause) – not just love from their par­ents, not just love from their neigh­bor­hood, but love from police, love from politi­cians. (Applause.) Love from some­body who lives on the oth­er side of the coun­try, but says, that young per­son is still impor­tant to me. (Applause.) That’s what jus­tice is. (Applause.)

And in the Amer­i­can tra­di­tion and in the immi­grant tra­di­tion of remak­ing our­selves, in the Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion that says none of us is with­out sin and all of us need redemp­tion, jus­tice and redemp­tion go hand in hand. (Applause.)

Right before I came out here, I met with four for­mer pris­on­ers, four ex-offend­ers. Two of them were African Amer­i­can, one of them was Lati­no, one of them was white. All of them had amaz­ing sto­ries. One of them dropped out of school when he was a young kid. Now he’s mak­ing film about his expe­ri­ence in the prison system.

One of them served 10 years in prison, then got a job at Five Guys – which is a tasty burg­er – (laugh­ter) – and they gave him an oppor­tu­ni­ty, and he rose up and became a gen­er­al man­ag­er there, and now is doing anti-vio­lence work here in the com­mu­ni­ty. (Applause.)

One of them, the young Lati­no man, he came out of prison and was giv­en an oppor­tu­ni­ty to get trained on green jobs that are help­ing the envi­ron­ment but also gave him a mar­ketable skill. And he talked about how the way he’s stay­ing out of trou­ble is he just keeps on think­ing about his two daugh­ters. And I could relate to that, because you don’t want to dis­ap­point your daugh­ters. (Applause.) You don’t want to dis­ap­point those baby girls. And so he says, I go to work and I come home, and I grab that lit­tle baby and get a kiss, and that’s keep­ing me focused. 

And then one of them, Jeff Copeland, was arrest­ed six times before his 38th birth­day. He was drink­ing, using drugs, racked up DUI after DUI, sen­tence after sen­tence. And he admits that the sen­tences he was get­ting for DUI weren’t reflec­tive of all the trou­ble he was caus­ing, could have been worse. And Jeff spent so much time jog­ging in place in his cell that inmates nick­named him The Run­ning Man.” And he was lit­er­al­ly going nowhere, run­ning in place. 

And then, some­how, Jeff start­ed exam­in­ing his life. And he said, This isn’t me.” So he decid­ed to hold him­self account­able. He quit drink­ing. He went to AA. Met a recruiter from the re-entry pro­gram at the Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege of Philadel­phia, enrolled in class­es once he was released – made sure to show up every day. Grad­u­at­ed sum­ma cum laude – (applause) – with a 3.95 GPA. And this fall he’ll grad­u­ate from Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty with a major in crim­i­nal jus­tice and a minor in social work. (Applause.) And he vol­un­teers help­ing for­mer inmates get their lives back on track. 

And it’s sort of a cliché,” he says, but we can do any­thing.” (Applause.) And just two years ago, The Run­ning Man” ran his first marathon – because he’s going some­where now. (Applause.) You nev­er look at cross­ing the fin­ish­ing line,” he says of his jour­ney, you attack it by putting one mile after the oth­er. It takes steps.” It takes steps. That’s true for indi­vid­u­als. It’s true for our nation. 

Some­times I get in debates about how to think about progress or the lack of progress when it comes to issues of race and inequal­i­ty in Amer­i­ca. And there are times where peo­ple say, Oh, the Pres­i­dent, he’s too opti­mistic.” Or he’s not talk­ing enough about how bad things are.” Oh, let me tell you some­thing, I see what hap­pens. My heart breaks when I see fam­i­lies who are impact­ed. I spend time with those fam­i­lies and feel their grief. I see those young men on street cor­ners and even­tu­al­ly in pris­ons, and I think to myself, they could be me; that the main dif­fer­ence between me and them is I had a more for­giv­ing envi­ron­ment so that when I slipped up, when I made a mis­take, I had a sec­ond chance. And they’ve got no mar­gin for error. (Applause.)

I know – I know – how hard things are for a lot of folks. But I also know that it takes steps. And if we have the courage to take that first step, then we take a sec­ond step. And if we have the courage to take the sec­ond step then sud­den­ly we’ve tak­en 10 steps. The next thing you know, you’ve tak­en 100 steps. And that’s true not just for us as indi­vid­u­als, but that is true for us as a nation. 

We are not per­fect, but we have the capac­i­ty to be more per­fect. Mile after mile; step after step. And they pile up one after the oth­er and pret­ty soon that fin­ish line starts get­ting into sight, and we are not where we were. We’re in a bet­ter place because we had the courage to move for­ward. (Applause.) So we can­not ignore the prob­lems that we have, but we can’t stop run­ning the race. (Applause.) That’s how you win the race. That’s how you fix a bro­ken sys­tem. That’s how you change a country. 

The NAACP under­stands that. (Applause.) Think about the race that you have run. Think about the race ahead. If we keep tak­ing steps toward a more per­fect union, and close the gaps between who we are and who we want to be, Amer­i­ca will move for­ward. There’s noth­ing we can’t do. 

Thank you. God bless you. God bless the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca. (Applause.)

George Laven­der is an award-win­ning radio and print jour­nal­ist based in Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @GeorgeLavender.
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