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Obama Eases Prisoner Re-Entry to Society

FILE - U.S. President Barack Obama, shown visiting the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma in July, is pressing for more support for prisoners re-entering society.

U.S. President Barack Obama is taking steps Monday to ease the path of inmates being released from prisons across the country to find new jobs and subsidized housing.

Obama plans to visit a residential drug-treatment center in Newark, New Jersey, to focus on efforts to help those who have completed sentences for criminal offenses to rejoin the outside world.

The United States recently decided to release 6,000 federal prisoners earlier than expected, reducing their penalties for drug offenses, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers have been advocating other reforms.

"We can help those who have served their time and earned a second chance get the support they need to become productive members of society," Obama said in his weekly video and radio address Saturday. "Everyone has a role to play, from businesses that are hiring ex-offenders to philanthropies that are supporting education and training programs."

On Monday afternoon, Obama is scheduled to tour Integrity House, a residential treatment facility in Newark, and meet with Mayor Ras Baraka and U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, a Democrat. Later, he's expected to convene a roundtable discussion and make a statement at the Center for Law and Justice at Rutgers University's Newark campus.

"Advancing policies and programs that enable these men and women to put their lives back on track and earn their second chance promotes not only justice and fairness, but also public safety," the White House said.

Despite the fact that 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.

Concerns linger

An estimated two-thirds of the inmates will be released to "halfway houses," transitional settings that provide support. In a recent interview with the Sinclair Broadcast Group, Jonathan Thompson, executive director of the National Sheriffs' Association, questioned the ability of halfway houses "to absorb this many people this quickly."

Some critics also have expressed concerns that the policy shift could increase safety risks to the public if released inmates fail to find legal work and instead return to crime.

Obama is calling for $8 million in new education grants over the next three years for former inmates. He also is ordering the government's hiring agency to delay asking job applicants about a possible criminal background until later in the application process to give former inmates a chance to impress hiring officials before discussing offenses that imprisoned them.

In addition, he is asking Congress to "ban the box," a campaign by prison reform activists to eliminate a box on job application forms that asks whether job applicants have been convicted of a crime.

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

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