By Roberta Rampton
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Tuesday he wanted to work with a bipartisan group of lawmakers on new prison sentencing reform legislation by the end of the year to reduce sentences for low-level drug dealers and parole violations.
"Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it," Obama told about 3,000 people attending a convention of the NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights group.
The speech came on the same day as a major international deal aimed at preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon, a diplomatic feat that will be part of Obama's legacy.
But on the domestic front, Obama, the first black U.S. president, has been frustrated on efforts to reduce inequality.
Citing statistics about the disproportionate number of black and Latino men in prison, Obama said incarceration costs had surged to $80 billion a year as drug offenders were sentenced to harsher sentences. He said 2.2 million people were in prison, up from 500,000 in 1980.
"That is the real reason our prison population is so high. In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime," Obama said.
Seizing on interest from what he has called "some unlikely Republican legislators," Obama has made criminal justice reform among his top priorities for his remaining 18 months as president.
He cited Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul, running for his party's 2016 presidential nomination, and Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, as two lawmakers who agreed on the need for reforms.
Obama, who on Thursday will visit a federal prison in Oklahoma, the first such trip by a sitting president, said the United States should reduce long mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes, or "get rid of them entirely."
Prison conditions should be addressed to reduce overcrowding, gang activity and rape, he said. He added he had directed Attorney General Loretta Lynch to review the overuse of solitary confinement.
Obama threw his support behind efforts to "ban the box" - a campaign to remove questions about criminal records from job applications. But he stopped short of pledging he would order federal agencies or contractors to take that step.
"The real question is whether this is the launch of a very serious effort to build redemption into our criminal justice system, or is this a campaign to burnish the president’s legacy," said American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Peter Cooney)