By Doshon Farad
Newark, N.J.- During the last year of his final term in office, President Barack Obama has made it his mission to tackle criminal justice reform and mass incarceration, two issues that are directly impacting the African-American community.
On Monday, the president spoke at Rutgers University Law School in Newark, N.J. to outline his plan to overhaul the criminal justice system, which has long been criticized by human rights activists for targeting nonwhites and poor people.
According to the White House, this plan urges the government to provide ex-offenders with job training, grants for education, and public housing. During his remarks, the president wasted no time addressing personal concerns regarding the criminal justice system as well as mass incarceration.
“I have at times despaired about the magnitude of the problem,” he said. “I’ve asked myself how do we break the cycle as young children are somehow on that pipeline where they end up incarcerated.”
At the same time, Obama also expressed enthusiasm for efforts being made. “What I’ve seen is that people across the board-folks who work inside the criminal justice system as well as folks who are affected by the criminal justice-are saying that there has to be a better way to do this,” he echoed.
He mentioned how the city of Newark is “helping to lead the way,” and credited Mayor Ras Baraka and Senator Corey Booker-who were both in attendance- for the city being a partner in the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative-an intervention program the president established last year that focuses on the plight of African-American males who disproportionately make up the prison population.
This initiative, as Obama put it is, “focused on disrupting” the pipeline to overcrowded jails that young black males face; he also pointed out how Newark is assisting in the effort, saying “Here in Newark-when it comes to rehabilitating prisoners and reintegrating former inmates into society-we have organizations that are doing extraordinary work.”
The president briefly touched on the incarceration rate in the U.S., as well as its controversial racial component that has upset many human rights observers.
“Right now there are 2.2 million Americans behind bars. We incarcerate people at a rate that is unequal to anywhere else. We account for five percent of the population but have twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population.”
“They are disproportionately black and Latino”, he added.
At the end of his address President Obama announced that the Justice Department has set up the Second Chance fellows program to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society. He also repeated an announcement he made earlier in the day in which he called on employers to “Ban the box” that calls for individuals to mention their criminal history on job applications. He expressed concern that non-violent offenders are often punished long after they’ve served prison sentences which makes it very difficult for them to find employment.
Several dignitaries attended the president’s speech. Among them was former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey. Your Black World spoke to him about his thoughts concerning the president’s plan. “The president is providing an opportunity for ex-offenders to live healthy lives. This includes structured sober housing, job training, and addiction treatment. Seventy percent of people behind bars are addicts and it important to provide treatment during and after their time in prison so that they can live healthier lives.” McGreevey said.
When asked if he believed that mass incarceration in the U.S. was biased towards black, Latinos, or poor people, Gov. McCreevey responded in the affirmative.
“Anybody who walks through a state prison understands the disproportionate number of people locked up are persons of color. Whether its racial or economic bias can clearly be seen. Sadly I’ve worked with women who spent time in jail for over a year because they couldn’t pay $200 which is a crying pathetic shame in this great nation. So I think the president speaking forcibly and clearly on this issue brings not only attention but arguably the need for greater resources for which I am grateful.”
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, whose office is assisting the president in his efforts, was also in attendance. He spoke briefly to Your Black World, stating “We all recognize that even when people do deserve to be punished ninety-five percent of them are going to get out and they’re going to go back to a place they call home or used to call home and try to make a life for themselves. If we don’t help them do that they’re going to be subjected to the natural pull-back to a life of crime that is strong. So we have an obligation to them and ourselves.”
Orange, NJ Mayor Dwayne D. Warren was among those in attendance. When asked about his views on the president’s speech, he said “The president came and showed by both example and deed how important it is to address reentry in any community. This is certainly the case in Orange where we have a number of programs to address the issue. He is right when he says it impacts your economy and the social fabric of your community. And it’s up to us to take care of it. Locking people away and throwing away the key has not worked for us. The best example is reforming and giving people opportunities to pull themselves up.”
Warren added, “If we do this city by city and state by state we’ll be able to take the incarceration picture and turn it on its head.”
Lawrence Hamm, who is the chairman of the New Jersey based People’s Organization for Progress, gave his thoughts, stating “I think the reforms that the president recited today do help people. There’s no getting around it. He even showed us living examples of people who were helped by the program which the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney’s Office is involved with. Of course ‘Ban the Box’ helps. We support all of those reforms. But on a more fundamental level, the number of people who are helped by these programs is still relatively small to the mass number of others who need the help. What we need are jobs for these young men who come out of prison. Even after we ban the box many of them still won’t get hired.”
Dquan Rosario, a 37-year-old black man- who in 2013 was released from prison after serving ten years on a drug charge, was also in attendance as a special guest of President Obama. Rosario is one of the beneficiaries of the president’s efforts. He expressed optimism towards Obama’s goals in helping ex-offenders.
“He has a good plan and structure put together. I don’t know if I can go into further details but I do know it’s a good thing. He just asked our opinion so he can further it right along and speed the process. He asked mayors, senators, judges, federal probation officers, and ex-convicts like myself for advice on what else he could do. We gave him our answers and he took them into consideration. I think he’s going to do some positive things.”