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Obama: Prison Sentencing Policies Hurt US Economy

Aisha Elliott studies at the Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, N.Y., April 8, 2016. Taconic inmates are reading literature in a course organized by the Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, which aims to boost employment for convicts after release.

President Barack Obama said Saturday that the $80 billion annual price tag for housing inmates in U.S. prisons has become prohibitive and that many nonviolent offenders serving lengthy prison terms are people with mental health issues and chemical addictions.

Obama, in his weekly address, said nearly 60 percent of the country's 2.2 million prisoners suffer from mental health problems and that 70 percent need drug treatment.

In pressing his months-long campaign for criminal justice reform, Obama called for new policies aimed at helping the more than 600,000 inmates released from prisons each year to become "productive, contributing members of their families and communities."

He said that the White House in the coming days would call on businesses to commit to hiring convicts who have served their prison terms, and that new steps would be detailed assuring that ex-convicts have what he called "a fair shot to compete for a federal job."

Writing Friday in The New York Times, Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, called the growth of the U.S. prison population "staggering," with an incarceration rate more than four times the world average.

He linked that growth to repeat-offender laws and other stricter sentencing rules, and he cited new research showing "many of those provisions do not appear to have a deterrent effect."