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In Newark, Obama calls for help for formerly incarcerated

President seeks steps to ease former inmates’ reintegration into society, as part of broader criminal justice push

In his broadest push for criminal justice reform, President Barack Obama on Monday turned his attention to the plight of those no longer behind bars but still feeling the effects of their incarceration, as he called for the federal government to do more to ease the transitions of millions of former inmates back into society.  

Speaking in Newark, New Jersey, after touring a local drug treatment center, Obama said he was taking steps to help individuals with criminal records stay on the right path through employment and housing aid.

“We’ve got to make sure Americans who have paid their debt to society can earn their second chance,” he said. “There are people who have gone through tough times, they’ve made mistakes, but with a little bit of help, they can get on the right path. That’s what we have to invest in, that’s what we have to believe in, and that’s what we have to promote.”

Obama announced a series of executive actions that he said would work toward that goal, including directing federal employers to delay questions about an applicant’s criminal history until later in the hiring process — a reform called ban the box that has already taken root in cities and states across the country. In addition, the president said his administration was issuing new guidance on how to handle arrest records when making decisions about public housing and was making a modest $9 million investment in re-entry programs around the country.  

Obama continued to call on Congress to embrace criminal justice reform, an issue that has gained traction in both parties, including measures to ban the box across the country and cut sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. 

“I urgently encourage both the Senate and the House to pass these bills,” he said. “It will not change the system overnight, but it will lock in some basic principles that will make us a safer and fairer system in the long term.”

At Integrity House, a state-funded drug and residential treatment center, Obama was joined by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. Obama is scheduled to host a roundtable discussion and deliver a statement at Rutgers University’s law school.

His focus on the previously incarcerated comes as more than 4,300 inmates are being released at the start of November, the first of likely tens of thousands of people to benefit from drug sentencing changes last year.

Aiming to seize some of Obama’s limelight, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, planned his own events Monday around community policing and criminal justice in Camden. Christie, who is struggling to attract attention for his presidential campaign, began the morning criticizing Obama in television interviews for going to his state to “take credit for something he has nothing to do with.”

“He has not done anything on criminal justice reform in seven years as president,” Christie said on Fox News, accusing Obama of inadequately supporting law enforcement.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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