President Obama visited Newark one month ago to discuss issues in criminal justice, specifically the overcrowding of prisons, taxpayers’ expense, the challenges in rehabilitation, and the struggles prisoners face after being released. His visit was part of a White House initiative to break the cycle of mass incarceration, and decrease recidivism among formerly incarcerated prisoners returning to society. The President’s plans are exactly what the country needs.
The United States has the largest prison population in the world, with approximately 2.4 million incarcerated. Fourteen percent of these sentenced inmates are serving time for drug offenses.
It is no coincidence that the President chose Newark, New Jersey to give his speech. New Jersey houses nearly 21,000 prisoners, with 60% African American and 16% Hispanic. For a state that is only 14.8% Black and 19.3% Hispanic, those statistics are alarming. Newark, with a high population of Black and Hispanic residents, has the highest crime per square mile value in the state. The city has 532 crimes per square mile, while the state as a whole has 79 crimes per square mile.
The cycle of incarceration is a difficult one to break. People get locked up, come out with little to no opportunities available to ex-convicts, and end up doing things that land them in prison yet again. This leads to the overcrowding of prisons, with a significant number being preventable events. More people in prison means more money from the taxpayers that could be used for other purposes that benefit the community. But more so, the cycle of incarceration takes away lives. It separates families and friends. It punishes rather than rehabilitates.
A criminal record can follow you long after you’ve been released. As President Obama mentioned in his speech, “A lot of time that record disqualifies you from being a full participant in our society even after you’ve paid your debt to society.” A record can bar you from certain jobs, especially in certain fields. It can make it difficult to obtain professional licenses and government benefits. Apartment complexes are now running background checks and denying leases to ex-convicts. Along with all of that comes the social stigma, which affects the way people look at or treat people who have been incarcerated.
In his announcement, the President provided a list of initiatives for change in the criminal justice system. He suggested increasing Education Department grants to provide education and rehabilitation services to prisoners to help them return to real life, including the expansion of technology training programs. The Department of Housing and Urban Development will prohibit landlords from evicting tenants off of one arrest and make efforts to reduce homelessness among ex-prisoners. As far as jobs are concerned, he is seeking to “ban the box” to prevent federal agencies from asking about criminal status on the first application.
President Obama said, “We can’t dismiss people out of hand simply because of a mistake they made in the past.” Given, no one forces you into crime, but we can help those who have made mistakes better themselves upon release. It’s a lesson our country can learn to give people a chance to become better citizens and ultimately reduce crime.