Obama Steps Up Efforts to Help Ex-Prisoners

A slate of actions to aid the formerly incarcerated in succeeding after release was announced on Monday.

President Barack Obama talks to members of the media during a visit to Integrity House, a nonprofit focused on the prisoner reentry process, in Newark, New Jersey, on Nov. 2. (Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Nov 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Roughly 650,000 people are released from prison every year in the United States. These men and women are faced with the daunting task of rebuilding their lives amid policies—from employment to housing to education—that stack the deck against someone with a criminal record. On Monday, President Obama announced steps the administration will take to aid formerly incarcerated people as they reintegrate into their communities.

“We need to make sure that Americans who have paid their debt to society can earn their second chance,” Obama said during a roundtable discussion on prisoner reentry in Newark, New Jersey, with Sen. Cory Booker and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

Before the discussion, the Department of Justice announced the administration would provide funding to reduce homelessness among people involved in the justice system and provide $8 million to nine communities for formerly incarcerated adult education programs. Obama called on Congress to pass legislation that would “ban the box” that requires applicants to disclose criminal histories on federal job applications. He’ll also direct the Office of Personnel Management to delay requests for applicants’ criminal histories during the hiring process.

“We can’t ask people to do well once they transition to the community and then put a thousand different roadblocks in their way,” Ronald Day told TakePart. Day is the associate vice president of the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy at The Fortune Society, a New York City–based prisoner reentry services organization.

“We commend the president for wanting to ban the box,” Day continued. “It’s a bold initiative, but we’re at a time when folks on the left, right, and center are singing the same tune on criminal justice.”

The growing consensus around criminal justice reform that Day referred to has coalesced in the form of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a bipartisan effort pending in Congress. While the bill’s success thus far demonstrates the momentum criminal justice reformers have gained, it is largely focused on reducing the number of people going into prison and ensuring that they spend less time there—not on supporting them after their release.

Roughly 67 percent of people released from state prisons return to prison within three years of their release, according to the Department of Justice. That high recidivism rate comes with a big price tag.

Last week, a group of activists delivered a petition to the White House with more than 130,000 signatures urging Obama to formally ban the box at the federal level. More than 100 cities and 19 states have passed legislation barring employers from inquiring about applicants’ criminal records early in the hiring process.

For Day, the president’s announcement strikes a personal chord. He spent 15 years in a New York state prison before his release in 2007, after which he was on parole for five years. During his time behind bars, he started taking courses and earning college credit, but his education was cut short when President Bill Clinton signed legislation in 1994 that cut off Pell Grant funding to prisoners. Obama reinstated Pell Grants for some prisoners in July.

“It was a life-altering experience for me,” Day said. “I dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, but getting a taste for being able to earn a college degree made me realize my life could be very different.”

Having access to education while incarcerated—even briefly—made all the difference for Day, who is now in his fourth year of a criminal justice doctoral program at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.