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Obama Announces Steps to Help Ex-Inmates Return to Society

  • Mary Alice Salinas

President Barack Obama speaks during a visit to the Newark, New Jersey campus of Rutgers University, Nov. 2, 2015.

President Barack Obama speaks during a visit to the Newark, New Jersey campus of Rutgers University, Nov. 2, 2015.

U.S. President Barack Obama is taking steps he says will help former inmates re-enter society, as he continues to push for reform of America’s criminal justice system.

“There are so many Americans that desperately want to earn a second chance,” said the president during a trip to Newark, New Jersey on Monday. “So we have got to make sure that people who have paid their debt to society can earn their second chance.”

The new White House actions include new grants to help ex-prisoners return to society through education, job training, housing, legal help and children’s services.

The president also announced action to “ban the box” on federal job applications for some of the government’s most competitive jobs. The applicants are asked to check a box on the application if they have a criminal record.

“It is relevant to find out whether or not somebody has a criminal record. We’re not suggesting ignore it,” the president said. “What we are suggesting is when it comes to the application, give folks a chance to get in through the door. Give them a chance to get in there so they can make their case.”

Nineteen of the 50 U.S. states and more than 100 local jurisdictions throughout the country have already dropped the criminal history box from job applications.

Obama praised bipartisan efforts in Congress to reform the criminal justice system and encouraged lawmakers to pass legislation that he says will make America’s criminal justice system “smarter and more effective.”

The president spoke after visiting a residential drug treatment facility that focuses on helping those who have completed their sentences and taking part in a forum at Rutgers University on education for former inmates.

The president said currently there are 2.2 million Americans behind bars, and the prison population is disproportionately black and Latino. He argued helping those who have completed their sentences return to their communities will benefit society and the economy.

The government began releasing 6,000 non-violent federal prisoners earlier than expected on Friday, after reducing their penalties for drug-related crimes. Their discharges were to be completed by Monday.

In a string of media interviews, New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton expressed concern about the prisoner release program, saying some of the inmates may have been jailed for non-violent offenses, but in fact may have violent pasts.

Although 600,000 people leave U.S. prisons each year, the country has a high rate of incarceration. The American Civil Liberties Union said that while the United States has 5 percent of the world's population, it accounts for about 25 percent of the world's prison population.