One in five American families. That’s how many Americans are impacted by a cycle of incarceration that President Barack Obama advocated against on Monday. And he chose Newark and New Jersey prisoner rehabilitation programs as examples of how to break this cycle, while announcing new presidential efforts toward reform.
“Today, I got a firsthand look at how Newark is leading the way,” Obama told a crowd of nearly 300 at the Rutgers University Center for Law and Justice, after visiting with participants at a counseling program and talking with former prisoners and law enforcement experts about ways to reduce recidivism. Nationwide, some 600,0000 inmates are released each year — about 10,000 in New Jersey — but nearly 40 percent will end up back behind bars.
“Here in Newark, when it comes to rehabilitating prisoners and reintegrating former inmates into society, you’ve got organizations that are doing extraordinary work,” Obama said after visiting Integrity House, a five-decade old facility that helps former prisoners with addiction issues and other struggles Programs like this make the difference between life as a productive citizen and a quick trip back to jail, he said.
The president, who spent the afternoon in Newark after landing at the city’s airport around noon and later attended fundraisers in New York, used the event to highlight his plans to expand federal funding for education and job-training programs targeted at former inmates, and reduce barriers for prisoners seeking jobs in federal government. This news, and Obama’s focus on the issue in general, sparked cheers from prison advocates.
“It was incredibly inspiring to have the president endorse so forcefully this work,” said U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, after the speech. Fishman leads a program that provides intensive support to former federal inmates, which Obama lauded during his remarks. “It’s terrific to have this work recognized in such a public way,” he added.
The event drew a crowd of Democratic leaders, including U.S. Senator Cory Booker and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka — onetime political opponents who joined the president on the tour and sat side by side at his speech — Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), Sen. Ronald Rice(D-Essex), Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincinzo, members of the Newark City Council, and others.
Not in attendance was Gov. Chris Christie, a vocal supporter of drug treatment and other reentry programs, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president. Christie attended a criminal-justice-themed event in Camden and was critical of the president’s visit to Newark, noting that the programs he came to celebrate were created by Garden State leaders without Obama’s assistance. (A spokesman for the president responded that Christie’s comments were designed to help his sagging poll numbers.)
The president thanked Booker and Baraka for their work on criminal-justice reform, but spent much of his time talking about the successful program participants he met. He introduced to the crowd Ashley Sinclair, who went through Newark’s own jobs program for former prisoners and today works for the Newark Department of Sanitation.
“Today, instead of getting into trouble on these streets, she’s earning a paycheck cleaning up these streets,” Obama said.
Dquan Rosario was first arrested at 17; by the time he was 37, he had spent more then a decade behind bars. But “something changed inside of Dquan” Obama said, explaining how he ended up in Fishman’s federal ReNew program, which creates a personal safety net to help connect former offenders with everything from substance-abuse counseling to clothes for a job interview. “They set up a system in which Dquan has a community encouraging him to move forward,” Obama said.
“There are so many Americans who want a second chance,” Obama continued. “We want more success stories like these. It’s good for everyone.”
The president urged Congress to pass more comprehensive criminal-justice reforms to reduce the number of citizens who are locked up and to improve the chances for those in jail for leading a productive life after their release. America’s prison population is now 2.2 million — costing taxpayers some $8 billion a year — and the vast majority of these inmates will eventually be released, most with no formal oversight.
In the interim, Obama pledged to use his executive powers to provide $8 million over three years to help create high-quality education and training programs for former prisoners; another program targets technology training to ex-offenders in 30 communities, including Newark. The president also promised to revise federal housing guidelines to clarify the rules relating to arrests and potential eviction.
“Funding is a big issue. We’re doing a federal program with spit and bubble gum,” said Fishman, describing how he pieces together bits of staff time to create the ReNew program. Twice a month former prisoners convene in a federal courtroom to meet with a judge, members of the prosecutor’s office — often the very people who put them behind bars — and others who work together to connect participants to housing programs, drug counseling, school, job training, and more.
“To have the prospect of additional resources, maybe reinvest some of the money we would save on reduced prison populations, would be a huge lift for us,” Fishman said. He launched the first session in Newark three years ago and has since added a second group in Newark and a program in Trenton; together, the program has graduated several dozen participants so far. “If we had more resources, we could scale the program up,” he said.
Ron Chen, dean of the Rutgers School of Law in Newark, which hosted the president’s speech, said after that he was pleased the president chose to make criminal justice reform such an important part of his legacy. And the additional federal funding he promised will go to good use, he said. “In the end these are resources that will be well spent, because they will save many times more than what they actually cost,” Chen said.
Prisoner advocates also cheered Obama’s promise to “ban the box,” or revise federal job-application forms so that job-seekers are no longer required to check a box indicating they have a criminal record. Some 19 states already prohibit criminal history questions on applications, a change New Jersey voters approved last year, and the time has come to make it nationwide, the president said. “We can’t dismiss people out of hand simply for a mistake they made in the past,” Obama said.
Changes like this could go a long way in helping former offenders get a shot at a new life, Dquan Rosario agreed after the presidents speech. “Ban the box is definitely a big deal,” he said.
Lawrence Hamm, chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress, a Newark group long active in the effort to reform the city’s criminal-justice system, said the changes announced by the president are important — but they are only the first step. What’s really needed is a federal jobs program for low-skilled workers, he said, similar to 1930s-era Works Progress Administration. “Yes, we need to ban the box,” Hamm said, “but we need jobs. After we ban the box, many of them still won’t be hired.”