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Obama Hopes To Seize Momentum For Criminal Justice Reform

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NPR's Steve Inskeep interviews President Obama at the White House on Thursday.

President Obama's perhaps most notable statement on race came recently in Charleston, S.C. That's where he gave the eulogy for nine African-Americans killed by a white man in a church.

The president has also continued to address the killings of black men at the hands of the police, and he's pushing to reduce the number of prison inmates, who are disproportionately black.

Some of his supporters feel the president finally found his voice. But in an interview with NPR, Obama says many of the issues he's now getting attention for, like criminal justice reform, are ones he's been working on all along.

"I think that one of the things I've learned about being president is that we'll work on issues for long periods of time, sometimes in obscurity," he says.

And though he had strong words for Republicans in Washington for their opposition to the Iran deal, he says criminal justice reform is one area where he envisions bipartisan support. "I mean, there are some sincere efforts on the part of some Republicans in Congress to deal with the problems of mandatory minimums in sentencing and rehabilitation," he tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep. "I think that, wherever I see an opportunity these days, with only 18 months to go, I intend to seize it."


Interview Highlights

On whether he is talking more forcefully about race now

I think I've been pretty consistent, if you look at my statements throughout my presidency. Some of it, I think, is events. ...

What is true is that there has been an awakening around the country to some problems in race relations, in police-community relations, that aren't new — they date back for decades — because of smartphones and cameras and, you know, social media. I think people have become more aware of them, both black and white.

And that gives me an opportunity, I think, then, to try to help to constructively shape the debate.

On criminal justice reform

I think that one of the things I've learned about being president is that we'll work on issues for long periods of time, sometimes in obscurity.

For example, on the issue of criminal justice reform, I had a conversation with [former Attorney General] Eric Holder when I came into office ... about how could we address the issue of these ridiculous mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses that are filling up our jails, and we did a whole bunch of work without getting a lot of attention, with U.S. attorneys around the country changing incentives so that they didn't feel as if being a good prosecutor meant always slapping the longest sentence on people.

And, in part because of some of those changes in practices, we saw, last year, for the first time in 40 years, a drop in both the number of people incarcerated and the crime rate.

I think what we've seen is the possibility, now, of having a — a broader public conversation, and this is one area where I've been pleasantly surprised to see some bipartisan interest.

I mean, there are some sincere efforts on the part of some Republicans in Congress to deal with the problems of mandatory minimums in sentencing and rehabilitation and ... I think that, wherever I see an opportunity these days, with only 18 months to go, I intend to seize it.

On feeling an 'urgency' to keep moving in his final year and a half

I think it's fair to say that if, in my first term, Ferguson had flared up, as president of the United States, I would have been commenting on what was happening in Ferguson.

So here's one thing I will say, is that I feel a great urgency to get as much done as possible, and there's no doubt that, after over six and a half years on this job, I probably have an easier time juggling a lot of different issues, and it may be that my passions show a little bit more, just because I've been around this track now for a while. ...

And frankly, we've done a pretty good job on some big pieces of business, which then allows me also to focus on some issues that we might have been working on quietly, but weren't getting as much attention.

But ... the main thing that may have changed is instead of having a year and a half behind me and six and a half years in front of me, I now have six and a half years behind me and a year and a half in front of me, so I gotta — I gotta keep moving.

I — you know, it's like, what'd Satchel Paige say? "Don't look — don't look behind you; you don't know what might be catching up." Yeah, you know, you just wanna keep on — keep on running.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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