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Obama visits prison to call for a fairer justice system

Created: 07/16/2015 4:21 PM KSTP.com
By: By DARLENE SUPERVILLE

EL RENO, Okla. (AP) — Peering from the back seat of his armored black limousine, President Barack Obama rode into a razor wire-surrounded federal prison Thursday and said he met young inmates "who made mistakes that aren't that different than the mistakes I made."

Obama came to the medium-security El Reno Federal Correctional Institution near Oklahoma City to press his case that the nation needs to reconsider the way crime is controlled and prisoners are rehabilitated. The president met with inmates and walked past rows of empty cells secured by large grey doors. Prison officials opened cell no. 123 for Obama and he gazed at its sparse trappings: a double bunk bed and third bed along the wall, a toilet and sink, along with a small bookcase and three lockers.

"Three full-grown men in a 9-by-10 cell," he said.

The White House said Obama was the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.

The president said there must be a distinction between young people "doing stupid things" and violent criminals. Young people who make mistakes, he said, could be thriving if they had access to resources and support structures "that would allow them to survive those mistakes."

"When they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren't that different than the mistakes I made," Obama said.

Among the changes Obama is seeking is the reduction or outright elimination of severe mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders. Earlier this week, he used his presidential powers to shorten the prison sentences of 46 people convicted on charges involving drugs.

The president has also called for restoring voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, and said employers should "ban the box" that asks job applicants about their criminal histories.

Obama has expressed hope that Congress will send him legislation to address the issue before he leaves office in 18 months, given the level of interest in the issue among Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates.

Presidential security was no small part of Obama's visit to the all-male institution. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said "unique steps" were taken to protect Obama during the visit. He did not elaborate.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a 2016 presidential contender, is pushing to restore voting rights to nonviolent felons who have served their sentences. Another GOP candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, was giving a speech Thursday calling for changes that in part would give nonviolent drug offenders a better chance at rebuilding their lives.

From shortening the prison sentences of nearly four-dozen non-violent drug offenders to advocating the reduction, or outright elimination, of severe mandatory minimum sentences to visiting a federal prison, Obama this week has argued forcefully for an alternative to the continued lengthy incarceration of people convicted of crimes he said did not fit the punishment.

Harsh prison sentences, particularly for nonviolent drug crimes, are to blame for doubling the prison population in the past two decades, Obama said earlier this week. Half a million people were behind bars in 1980, a figure that has since quadrupled to its current total of more than 2.2 million inmates.

Obama has expressed hope that Congress will send him legislation to address the issue before he leaves office in 18 months, given the level of interest in the issue among Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates.

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Follow Darlene Superville on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap

(Copyright 2015 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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