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Obama Pushes for Criminal Justice Reform

President Barack Obama speaks at the NAACP's 106th national convention at the Philadelphia Convention Center, July 14, 2015.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday called for an overhaul of the U.S. criminal justice system, calling it an issue that the nation can't afford to ignore.

"In far too many cases, the punishment simply doesn't fit the crime,'' Obama told the NAACP's annual convention in Philadelphia.

The United States, he said, jails as many people as the top 35 European nations combined, with African-Americans and Latinos disproportionately put behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses.

"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," he said.

In the speech to the country's most prominent African-American advocacy group, the president called for either reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and increasing job training programs for people while they are incarcerated.

He also announced a federal review of the use of solitary confinement and urged Congress to pass a sentencing reform bill by year's end.

Obama acknowledged that many people in the U.S. need to be in prison — "murderers, predators, rapists, gang leaders'' — but in too many instances, he said, law enforcement is treating young black and Latino men differently than their white peers.

He said African-Americans and Latinos received harsher sentences for similar crimes committed by whites, and "about one in every 35 African-American men, and one out of every 88 Latino men, is serving time right now."

Sentences Commuted

The president's remarks came a day after he commuted the sentences of 46 federal prisoners convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. The decision was part of Obama's push to reform the criminal justice system.

Had they been convicted of the same crimes today, most of the 46 would already be out of prison, the White House said. Fourteen were serving life sentences.

"These men and women were not hardened criminals," Obama said in a video message. "Their punishment did not fit the crime." He added: "I believe at its heart, America is a nation of second chances, and I believe these folks deserve their second chance."

The White House said Obama wouldn't hesitate to commute more sentences in the coming months if the circumstances were right.

"The statistics cannot be ignored. We cannot close our eyes anymore,'' Obama said.