President Barack Obama arrived in Newark on Monday to push for criminal justice reform in a country where more than two million Americans are behind bars and where 70 million people have a criminal record.
"There has got to be a better way to do this," said Obama before a crowd of approximately 150 people gathered inside the Center for Law and Justice at Rutgers-Newark as he announced two federal executive actions designed to help overhaul the criminal justice system toward a greater emphasis on prisoner re-entry and rehabilitation through education and job skills initiatives. "Today, I got a first-hand look at how Newark is helping to lead the way. We have to break the cycle."
Obama announced two action plans to encourage prisoner re-entry and rehabilitation as part of a national initiative. The president noted that he was taking action to make federal employers "ban the box," a policy that will prevent federal agencies from asking questions about criminal records in job applications, often registered in a check box, until later in the application process. Obama also announced new federal grants to help prisoners returning to society get a second chance through job training and education programs, housing and legal assistance.
"You can't simply dismiss people out of hand simply because of mistakes they made in the past," Obama said, emphasizing that 19 states and several major corporations have already taken measures to ban the box. "What we're trying to do is good for everybody. It means less crime, less recidivism, less incarceration, and less waste of taxpayer money."
Obama's arrival in Newark put the President's imprimatur on criminal justice reform issues that have already been on the radar of two prominent local politicians. Obama was joined by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a former Newark mayor, as well as current Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. In Washington, Booker has promoted several bipartisan measures designed to overhaul the criminal justice system, including finding alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders, permitting juveniles to have their records cleared of certain non-violent crimes and employment training to help those released from prison find jobs. In Newark, Baraka has established programs designed to assist former offenders find work, including encouraging re-entry through a city labor pool database.
"The grants will give us the resources that we need here in the city of Newark," Baraka told NewarkInc.com, moments after Obama praised Baraka's work to boost criminal justice reform locally and encouraged Congress to move forward with the bills Booker is backing. "Our own version of 'ban the box' in this state is not as strong as we want it to be. Hopefully on the federal level if we put some muscle behind it, we'll get some more people hired locally."
While at Rutgers-Newark, Obama engaged in a roundtable discussion with several formerly incarcerated individuals who have benefited from programs that encourage education, re-entry and rehabilitation both inside and outside of prison. These initiatives include the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) program, a consortium of higher education institutions housed at Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Criminal Justice that works with the New Jersey Department of Corrections and State Parole Board to ease the transition of former prisoners to life outside of prison after their release.
Obama specifically noted the NJ-STEP program along with Integrity House, a Newark non-profit organization that has helped former prisoners, including those with substance abuse problems, re-enter society for decades, as doing critical work in the city as part of a national attempt to introduce wider critical justice reform.
Before departing, Obama singled out several local residents who after working with local, state and federal agencies, as well as law enforcement, were able to boost their personal drives toward starting new lives. One of the people Obama put into the spotlight was Ashley Sinclair, 21, of Newark, who formerly was on the streets and involved in crime.
"Eventually Ashley decided she wanted something better for herself, impressed people with her work ethic, and earned a place in the Newark Department of Sanitation," Obama said. "Instead of getting in trouble on the streets, she's helping to clean up those streets.
"We can't have the criminal justice system carrying the entire load of solving all of society's ills," Obama added. "The ultimate goal is to make sure that folks are law-abiding, self-sufficient, good citizens. Everything we do should be designed toward that goal. It's not too late if we give people a little bit of help."