President Obama Addresses Criminal Justice Reform, the “Ferguson Effect,” and Syria in “NBC Nightly News” Interview
NOVEMBER 2, 2015 — President Barack Obama today discussed his calls for sweeping criminal justice reform in an exclusive interview with “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt, describing “subtle biases” and “predispositions” that he says result in racial inequality: “Pretty much up and down the line, what we see is disparities in how white, black, Hispanic suspects are treated. Higher arrest rates, tougher sentencing, longer sentences.”
Pres. Obama said he is “very proud” that his legacy as the first African American president could “help to galvanize and mobilize America on behalf of issues of racial disparity and racial justice,” adding: “I do so hoping that my successor who is not African American — if he or she is not — that they’ll be just as concerned as I am because this is part of what it means to perfect our union.”
The president also addressed his decision to put U.S. special operations forces on the ground in Syria, saying: “This is just an extension of what we were continuing to do. … I’ve been consistent throughout that we are not going to be fighting like we did in Iraq with battalions and occupations. That doesn’t solve the problem.”
A transcript of tonight’s “NBC Nightly News” report is below and video is online here: http://nbcnews.to/1NNAs1p
A separate video clip on his legacy and successor is online here: http://nbcnews.to/1XKCWlG
Much more of Holt’s two-part interview with President Obama will air Tuesday across all platforms of NBC News, beginning on “TODAY.”
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Excerpts of the interview may be used subject to the following restrictions:
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LESTER HOLT (LIVE):
Now to our exclusive interview with President Obama. The president’s push for sweeping criminal justice reform brought him here to Newark this afternoon, where he met with clients at an addiction recovery house.
The president, who has been calling for reduced prison sentences and diversion programs for nonviolent drug offenders, visited Integrity House to highlight their work in helping formerly jailed offenders to re-enter society.
Criminal justice reform enjoys rare bipartisan support in Washington. After his visit, he sat down with me to talk about what’s at stake.
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You take one of the underpinnings of justice, which is deterrent, when you say, “No jail or diversion or shorter sentences.” Are you afraid it could send the wrong message?
Well, actually nobody’s talking about no jail in all circumstances. The question is just how do we go through the various levels of the criminal justice system and tailor it so that we are getting the best results, which are safe streets and a reduced incarceration that results in us as a society spending $80 billion a year. // And some of it’s necessary. I’ve said repeatedly. If you’ve got violent criminals out there, they need to be incapacitated. They need to be taken off the streets. And nobody’s more invested than I am in continuing the trend towards reduced crime.
Almost every time you speak about criminal justice reform, you ultimately note that the system is unfair to black and Hispanic boys and men. And I wonder if you could explain a bit more specifically. You’re talking about the point of arrest, the interactions with police, or within the court system?
Pretty much up and down the line, what we see is disparities in how white, black, Hispanic suspects are treated. Higher arrest rates, tougher sentencing, longer sentences. // Where it’s happening, you can’t always isolate within the system. There may be subtle biases that take place. There may be predispositions that end up resulting in these disparities. But we know they’re happening.
Your own F.B.I. director has raised this idea of the Ferguson effect, that police officers maybe laying back a bit, they don’t want to end up on somebody’s camcorder. And as a result, we’re seeing a spike in homicides in some cities. Do you fear that could undermine, derail what you’re trying to do right now?
Well, what is absolutely true is that we have seen some spikes in violent crime in some cities. Overall the violent crime rate is still near the historic lows. // We’ve seen a spike in some cities this year, but it’s still close to the historic lows.
But is it something you think — a chill that police officers are feeling?
You know, we have not seen any evidence of that. And I think the F.B.I. director would be the first to say that he’s heard anecdotal suggestions that may– that may be happening in selective sites, but we don’t know.
So many hopes and aspirations were placed on you as the first African American president. As you approach this area of criminal justice reform, is this, in your mind, your defining moment that would seal the legacy of what we would expect from the first African American president?
You know, this is something that’s important to me. // One of the things that I’ve consistently said as president is that I’m the president of all people. // I am very proud that my presidency can help to galvanize and mobilize America on behalf of issues of racial disparity and racial injustice.
We haven’t heard from you since last Friday when the decision was announced to put a small number of U.S. special operations forces on the ground in Northern Syria. Many will look at it and say, “You’ve broken your promise about boots on the ground.” Have you?
Well, keep in mind that we have run special ops already. // And really, this is just an extension of what we were continuing to do. We are not putting U.S. troops on the frontlines fighting firefights with ISIL. // But I’ve been consistent throughout that we are not going to be fighting like we did in Iraq with battalions and occupations. That doesn’t solve the problem.
* * * TAPE ENDS * * *
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