The president's comments came during a White House forum Thursday led by Bill Keller, editor in chief of the Marshall Project, a nonprofit online journalism organization that focuses on criminal justice issues in the U.S.
Much of the current conversation about criminal justice reform focuses on non-violent drug offenders, and Obama said that while that is the right place to start the conversation, if the nation is serious about curbing the U.S. incarceration rate — which leads the world — efforts must also eventually consider curbing lengthy mandatory sentences for some violent criminals.
"Can we in fact significantly reduce the prison population if we're only focusing on non-violent offenses?" Obama asked. "In Europe, for example, they have a lower incarceration rate because they also don't send violent offenders for such long periods of time."
The forum featured some of Obama's most expansive and comprehensive public remarks on race, policing and criminal justice reform since issues of race and justice were thrust to the forefront of the national consciousness after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last August, as well as the riots that broke out in response.
"Right now we do have a crisis of confidence," said Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, who sat on the panel with Obama. "And it's a tremendous opportunity for us to do better."
The discussion came one day after a group of 130 law enforcement officials — including police chiefs and prosecutors — came out in support of sentencing and prison reform, a move likely to give political cover to law-and-order members of Congress still hesitant to support legislation to walk back some sentencing requirements.
"We know firsthand that more incarceration does not keep our country safe," Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and former New Orleans police superintendent Ronal Serpas, who led the law enforcement coalition, wrote in an op-ed in USA Today. "Our experience and research show that good crime control policy is not about locking up everyone. It’s about locking up the right people."
Obama also decried the lack of available accurate, real-time data regarding both crime and police behavior — which several top Justice Department officials, including the attorney general and the FBI director, have noted in recent weeks.
"We don't really do a good job right now in collecting national data," Obama said, adding that the FBI did a review of crime in the nation's 95 largest cities and concluded that, while a handful of cities have seen increases in murders this year, there is no statistically significant national spike in crime.
Obama also went on to defend the Black Lives Matter protest movement, which has been painted by some as anti-police.
"Sometimes, like any of these loose organizations, some people pop off and say dumb things but … on the other hand though, it started being lifted up as 'these folks are opposed to police, they're opposed to cops and all lives matter,' so the notion was that somehow saying black lives matter was reverse racism or suggesting that other people’s lives don’t matter or police officers lives don’t matter." Obama said. "And whenever we get bogged down in that kind of discussion, we know where that goes, that’s just down the old trap."
Obama went on to suggest that organizers of Black Lives Matter — which he declared a "social media movement" — do value all lives and do support good law enforcement. But he added, repeating a line he has used often when discussing issues of race and policing, that concerns about policing and profiling in minority communities are real and valid.
"I think that the reason that the organizers used the phrase Black Lives Matter was not because they were suggesting that no one else’s lives matter ... rather what they were suggesting was there is a specific problem that is happening in the African American community that’s not happening in other communities." Obama said. "And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address."
The president went on to paraphrase the French poet Anatole France:
"I forget which French writer said 'there is a law that was passed that really was equal because both rich and poor were forbidden from stealing loaves of bread and sleeping under the bridge.' Well … that’s not a good definition of equality," Obama said.