ABOVE PHOTO: President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., Thursday, July 16, 2015. As part of a weeklong focus on inequities in the criminal justice system, the president will meet separately Thursday with law enforcement officials and nonviolent drug offenders who are paying their debt to society at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison for male offenders near Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
By Josh Lederman
WASHINGTON– More than half a million people leave U.S. prisons each year, but with jobs, housing and mental health services scarce, many are soon back behind bars. On Monday, President Barack Obama called for breaking that cycle of incarceration by helping former inmates successfully re-enter society.
With a visit to a drug treatment center in Newark, New Jersey, Obama aimed to boost his ongoing push for overhauling the criminal justice system. In rare bipartisan fashion, Congress is considering legislation cutting sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, but Obama will seek to force attention to the plight offenders face once they’re finally set free.
“Everyone has a role to play, from businesses that are hiring ex-offenders to philanthropies that are supporting education and training programs,” Obama said in his weekly address.
Without new laws, Obama is limited in what he can to do. For example, Obama has asked Congress to “ban the box” – shorthand for prohibiting the government and its contractors for asking job applicants about criminal histories on applications. It’s an issue resonating in the Democratic presidential primary, with Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley all supporting steps to help those convicted of crimes find employment.
Using his own authority where possible, Obama will announce he’s asking the government personnel office to wait until later in the hiring process to ask about criminal histories – a step most federal agencies have already taken, the White House said. The Obama administration will also clarify its “one strike” rule that prevents many people with arrest records from living in public housing.
At Integrity House, a state-funded drug and residential treatment center, Obama was to be joined by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. Obama also planned to host a roundtable and deliver a statement at Rutgers University’s law school.
Obama’s focus on the previously incarcerated comes as more than 4,300 inmates are being released at the start of November, in what will likely be tens of thousands to benefit from drug sentencing changes last year.
Aiming to seize some of Obama’s limelight, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie planned his own events Monday on community policing and criminal justice in Camden. Christie, who is struggling to attract attention for his presidential campaign, began the morning criticizing Obama in television interviews for coming to his state to “take credit for something he has nothing to do with.”
“He has not done anything on criminal justice reform in seven years as president,” Christie said on Fox News, accusing Obama of inadequately supporting law enforcement.