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Obama to visit federal prison in Oklahoma on Thursday

President Obama listens to remarks to reporters by Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong after their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on July 7. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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President Obama will visit a federal prison in Oklahoma on Thursday, White House officials said Friday, as part of his intensified push to overhaul the nation's criminal justice system.

The trip will be "the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to a federal prison," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters at the daily briefing, adding that it will come after Obama will speak Tuesday about reforming sentencing guidelines at the NAACP's annual conference in Philadelphia.

"The president will outline the unfairness in much of our criminal justice system, highlight bipartisan ideas for reform and lay out his ideas to make our country fairer, smarter and more cost effective while keeping the American people safe and secure," Earnest said.

Obama, who views sentencing reform as one of the remaining areas where he may be able to forge a bipartisan compromise before leaving office, will visit El Reno, a medium security prison in El Reno, Okla.  Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Charles E. Samuels Jr., who recently announced he will retire by the end of the year, is expected to accompany him.

While at the prison Obama will participate in an interview with VICE as part of the outlet's special on the criminal justice system. The president has campaigned for months to overhaul sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenses that have kept many men and women of color in prison for decades.

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Obama is also likely to commute the sentences of dozens of non-violent offenders next week, according to individuals familiar with the decision. In March, the president commuted the sentences of 22 drug offenders, the largest number of commutations he had granted since taking office.

Asked about the possible commutations, Earnest declined to provide details but said, "I can say as a general matter, the president has used his executive authority previously to commute the sentences of some nonviolent offenders, and I certainly wouldn't rule out the possibly that he would use that kind of authority in the future."

The early release of federal inmates is part of a sweeping effort to reduce the enormous costs of crowded prisons and address drug sentences handed down under old guidelines that U.S. officials now view as too harsh. But as tens of thousands of prisoners have applied for early release, the processing of these applications is moving slowly.

White House officials also expressed an openness Friday to restoring voting rights to felons who have served their time, though it is unclear if Obama has formally endorsed that proposal.

"Well, I think this will certainly be something that's discussed in the context of criminal-justice reform, and there is a strong argument that some have made about how once an individual has paid their debt to society, that those voting rights should be restored, and I know ... that there is bipartisan support for a policy like that," Earnest said.