President Barack Obama took on Black Lives Matter opponents Thursday, saying he believes organizers of the social justice movement use the phrase to illustrate a specific problem in the African-American community that doesn’t affect others as much. “The African-American community’s not just making this up,” he said.
"It’s real, and there’s a history behind it, and we have to take it seriously," the president went on to say. Obama said Black Lives Matter, the criminal justice reform movement sparked by police killings in recent years, has been portrayed as opposed to police and that in saying “black lives matter,” they don’t believe all lives are important.
“Whenever we get bogged down in that kind of discussion, we know where that goes, that’s just down the old trap,” Obama said. “I think everybody understands all lives matter. Everybody wants strong, effective law enforcement, everybody wants their kids to be safe when they’re walking to school.”
Obama made these remarks Thursday during a panel alongside Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado John Walsh, in which he talked about reforming the criminal justice system. The conversation was moderated by Bill Keller, former top editor of the New York Times and now editor-in-chief of the Marshall Project, a digital journalism organization focusing on issues related to criminal justice.
“The criminal justice system should treat people fairly regardless of race, wealth and station,” Obama said Thursday afternoon. “There has to be consistency in the application of the law.”
The panel was convened amid a national conversation about reform in the criminal justice system and mass incarceration, which costs the United States more than $80 billion a year by some estimates. Obama plans to travel around the country in the next two weeks to talk about criminal justice reform, according to the Marshall Project.
The president has said he wants to make criminal justice reform a focal point of his remaining time in office, and more than 100 police chiefs from across the nation — including Beck — announced Wednesday a new organization they formed to try to reduce incarceration rates. A reform should make sure that the punishments people get fit the crime, Obama said.
“If we know someone engaged in nonviolent drug crime, they should be punished, but their sentence should not probably be longer than a rapist or murderer, and if that’s what our sentencing guidelines reflect, then that’s a problem,” he said.
Drug treatment and effective re-entry programs are some alternatives to prison Obama outlined. If the United States had better sentencing practices and thought more about how to deal with drug offenders, recidivism could be reduced and money could be saved, he said.
More attention is being paid to the criminal justice system. Congress is looking at a bill that would give judges more discretion in minimum sentences and allow for some inmates considered low-risk to get reduced sentences by entering rehabilitation programs. Keller asked the panel why the country should not get rid of mandatory minimum sentences altogether.
“We have to reserve their use for the most severe, dangerous and violent offenders out there,” Walsh said.
— The Marshall Project (@MarshallProj) October 22, 2015
Obama also said data collection on a real-time basis needs to improve. Having better data, authorities can target where crime is concentrated, see where police are having problems with community interactions and can also boost transparency between police and the communities they serve.