Newark reflects before Obama visit focused on criminal justice reform

Earl Best remembers when he returned to his Newark hometown after serving 17 years in prison for bank robbery. While life was forbidding inside of jail, it was not forgiving on the outside.

"I tried to do the right thing, but the doors were closed because of my record," said Best, a man in his sixties known as the "Street Doctor" who has spent most of the 16 years after jail as a counselor to people both inside and outside of the criminal justice system. "People don't check a box that they've got a record, they get let go, and it forces them to get back into what got them in jail. And it's still going on for lots of other people today."

The arrival of President Barack Obama in Newark on Monday, where he will speak at the Center for Law and Justice at Rutgers-Newark about criminal justice reform issues such as prisoner re-entry into society and the high U.S. mass incarceration rate, has spurred a deeper conversation about the American criminal justice system in Newark and beyond.

Obama will be flanked 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.

Earl Best, a.k.a. "Street Doctor"

Todd Clear, a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers-Newark, pointed to a "panorama of issues" that make seeking solutions for America's criminal justice problems, including prisoner re-entry, difficult.

"Some look to a deficits model approach, where the government provides services and other supports to help former prisoners succeed. Others look to a strength-based approach, where mentors work with ex-offenders seeking re-entry to look at what assets they already have to succeed and find a way to use those assets," Clear said. "These are different approaches to producing the same product, with the mutual effect of changing the conversation about criminal justice issues."

Best is now an official part of attempting to find solutions working in the Baraka administration's office of affirmative action. But while welcoming the arrival of the president and his advocacy of reform, Newark's "Street Doctor" pointed to personal responsibility as a key component to heal the criminal justice system.

"I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. A lot of this is on the individual," Best said. "What's wrong with this society is that we claim that we want to give a person another chance, but it's fake. What would make things real is if we gave them a chance. Everybody has got a gift. But you've got to help people find that gift. The missing pieces of the puzzle are right in front of them."

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