The Rev. Al Sharpton praised the Obama administration for improving the criminal justice system nationally. The National Action Network’s annual Legislative and Policy Conference “From Demonstration to Legislation” took place on Capitol Hill and the White House on Sept. 6 and 7. According to the organization’s Facebook page, the conference is designed to allow NAN members to interact with elected members of Congress, fellow activists, and advocates to establish concrete ways to achieve Dr. King’s dream. Sharpton uses the conference as a call for action on various issues that affect the Black community.

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Rev. Al Sharpton speaking to audience at White House Briefing. (Photo by Linda Poulson)

“This president and this Justice Department has reduced more sentences for non-violent drug offenders than the last eight presidents combined,” Sharpton told attendees. “This is a president that has had a task force on policing. This has been an action administration.”

Sharpton also commended U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who was part of the conference and reflected on the progress made by the DOJ.

“From my perspective, there is no issue that is more important than that we step back, take a look at what we’ve been doing, and to reshape our system to make our criminal justice system better,” said Sally Yates, deputy attorney general of the DOJ. “We are not going to jail our way into safer communities. We are five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of imprisoned. We have four times more people in prison than China. The federal prison population has exploded 800 percent since 1990. Today, there are 2.2 million people in prison.” Yates said that $80 billion is spent on prisons, which takes up one third of the country’s budget.

During a panel discussion on criminal justice reform, experts in the field, including Ron Davis, director, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, Department of Justice; Roy Austin, deputy assistant to the president for Urban Affairs, Justice, and Opportunity; and Elias Alcantara, senior associate director in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs spoke about the ailments of the current criminal justice system and President Obama’s attempts to change it. “People under the old scheme will be under the new scheme (referring to crack/cocaine violations); the President does not want to see solitary confinement for juveniles, and due to poverty being held in jail because they can’t pay their bail,” said Austin.

He said the President is working on job, educational, and mental health training for the incarcerated, ways to stop juveniles from entering the prison pipeline, and policies that will help incarcerated individuals receive a second chance.

“I think it’s a good thing because he’s doing all he can the time he has in office,” D.C. resident Lawrence Robin told the AFRO. “Some of the people were not justly confined for the period of time that they did . . . and people of color . . . getting locked up for minor things and getting longer sentences. They didn’t deserve the time that they got.”