For the first time in US history, the president visited to a federal prison. The trip was part of a broader mission by Barack Obama to fix what he described as “a broken system” of criminal justice in the United States.

Days before his tour of the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, the White House granted clemency to 46-non-violent drug offenders who had already served 10 years behind bars. And in a speech at the NAACP, the country’s oldest and largest civil rights organisation, Obama highlighted the deep racial disparities that have led to the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans and Latinos. He also called for a cultural shift when it comes to how the US deals with prisons and prisoners.

So how ‘broken’ is the system?

The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Federal prisons are at 130 per cent capacity, with half of their population jailed for drug offenses. The United States spends $80 billion on keeping people incarcerated. And while crime rates have steadily declined over the past three decades, the prison population has quadrupled since 1980, with African-Americans and Latinos making up 60 per cent of prisoners.

With strong bipartisan support, Obama has requested sweeping criminal justice reforms which include reducing or eliminating mandatory sentences; changes to prisons to reduce overcrowding, abuse and the use of solitary confinement; increasing programmes that help with job training and drug treatment; and restoring voting rights to former offenders. 

So are Obama’s reform plans the answer to this “broken” criminal justice system? Join our conversation at 19:30 GMT. 

On this episode of The Stream, we speak with:

Matt Haney @MattHaneySF
Policy Director/Co-Founder, #Cut50

Anthony Graves
Houston Forensic Science Center board member

Cecily McMillan @CecilyMcMillan
Prison rights advocate

Maya Schenwar @MayaSchenwar
Editor-in-Chief, Truthout

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.