President Obama announces bipartisan progress in addressing America’s prison problem

Second chancesLast week, President Obama announced several executive actions aimed at promoting the reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals into communities across the nation. The announcement came in response to consistent pressure from advocates, including the North Carolina Second Chance Alliance, and follows a growing trend among states of reducing barriers to reentry and otherwise restoring opportunities for productive citizenship for individuals with criminal records.

Standing before a crowd of formerly incarcerated individuals, reentry service providers, business and community leaders in Newark, New Jersey, President Obama cited some of our criminal justice system’s more startling statistics:

  • 2.2 million Americans—disproportionately African-Americans and Latinos— are currently behind bars
  • The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its inmates
  • More than 600,000 inmates are released each year
  • one in three adults of working age—or 70 million Americans—have a criminal record

As the President explained in his description of what life with a criminal record can mean:

“A lot of times that record disqualifies you from being a full participant in our society even if you’ve already paid your debt to society. It means millions of Americans have difficulty getting their foot in the door to try to get a job, much less actually hanging onto that job. That’s bad for not only those individual— it’s bad for our economy. It’s bad for our communities who need more role models who are gainfully employed. So we’ve got to make sure that Americans that have paid their debt to society can earn their second chance.”

Towards this goal of restoring opportunities for productive citizenship for deserving community members, President Obama announced the following measures:

  • Adult Reentry Education Grants: The Department of Education will award up to $8 million over three years to nine communities to support the educational attainment of formerly incarcerated individuals and “build evidence on effective reentry education programs and demonstrate that high-quality, appropriately designed, integrated, and well-implemented educational and related services in institutional and community settings are critical in supporting educational attainment and reentry success.”
  • Guidance for Public Housing Admissions and other HUD-assisted Housing: The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released guidance to public housing authorities and owners of HUD-assisted housing promoting reform of local admissions standards in a manner that safely expands access for individuals with criminal records. Most notably the guidance made clear that arrests not resulting in convictions are not a proper basis for a denial of housing. The complete guidance can be found here.
  • Ban the Box for Federal Employment: “I’m taking action to “Ban the Box” for the most competitive job at federal agencies–the federal government should not use criminal history to screen out applicants before we’ve even looked at their qualifications.” The President directed the Office of Personnel Management to take action to modify its rules to delay inquiries into criminal history until later in the hiring process. In doing so, he cited several private employers, including Walmart, Target, Koch Industries, and Home Depot, as well as 19 states that have banned the box. President Obama explained his hope is that this collective action to Ban the Box makes the practice of not automatically excluding applicants with criminal records from opportunities “a basic principle across our society.”
  • National Clean Slate Clearinghouse established: The Department of Labor and Department of Justice are partnering to establish a National Clean Slate Clearinghouse that will provide technical assistance to local legal aid programs, public defender offices, and reentry service providers to build capacity for legal services needed to help with record-cleaning, expungement, and related civil legal services.
  • Permanent Supportive Housing for the Reentry Population: The Pay for Success Permanent Supportive Housing Demonstration will test cost-effective ways to help persons cycling between the criminal justice and homeless service system. Pay for Success is an innovative form of performance contracting for the social sector through which government only pays if results are achieved.

President Obama also took the opportunity to “urgently encourage” Congress to pass meaningful criminal justice reforms, including reforms that reduce recidivism for those who have been in prison and are reentering society. President Obama specifically cited the Sentencing Reform and Correction Act of 2015 as an example of such legislation as well as the bipartisan nature of reentry efforts and broader criminal justice reform:

“I am very proud of the work those legislators are doing. I’m especially proud because it’s not typical that Democrats and Republicans get together on useful legislation. Let’s face it. But this is an area where we’ve seen some really strong bipartisan work and I’m very encouraged by it.”

The President closed his speech by putting the need for reentry supports and broader criminal justice reforms in simple terms:

“The problem we’re trying to solve is not just to keep on catching people and putting them back in jail. The problem we’re trying to solve is giving people a foundation from which they can then become productive citizens. The goal is to prevent crime; the goal is to make sure that folks are fairly punished when they break the law. But the ultimate goal is to make sure that folks are law-abiding, self-sufficient, good citizens. And everything we do should be designed towards that goal. And if we’re doing a good job there, crime will go down and stay down.”

To hear President Obama’s powerful remarks, please visit here.
To learn more about these and other federal reentry efforts, please visit here.

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