President Barack Obama visited Rutgers University-Newark Nov. 2 to highlight a series of criminal justice issues including prison reform and post-incarceration rehabilitation.
During his trip to Newark, he visited Integrity House, a residential facility and rehabilitation organization for individuals with substance abuse problems, convened a roundtable discussion on incarcerated people successfully reentering society and gave a statement at Rutgers’ S.I. Newhouse Center for Law and Justice.
The president’s first main point in his address at Rutgers, which The Montclarion attended, was describing the steps his administration is taking to “create more success stories” of incarcerated people rejoining society. Obama said he is working towards increased funding for education, job training, housing, legal help and child services for these individuals.
The Obama administration will also be working toward banning the box in federal government job applications that ask whether or not the applicant has a criminal record.
“My administration is announcing new grants to help returning citizens seize that second chance,” he said. The president explained that he and his administration will be partnering with other cities to imitate the successful initiatives introduced in Newark to other areas of the country. “We can start expanding,” he explained.
The second of the president’s two-point statement addressed limitations that the structure of job applications puts on applicants who are trying to rewrite their futures.
“On many applications, there’s a box that asks if you have a criminal record,” he said. “If the answer is yes,” he continued, “then a lot of times, you’re not getting a call back.”
The president explained that the federal government should change its policy and remove the box to give those reentering society at any age a fair chance to reenter society successfully and become “law-abiding, self-sufficient, good citizens.” This is his priority with this new potential law, which is currently “working its way through the Senate.”
Though he did express twice that he could enact this change through his executive authority, he explained that Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) have been working diligently to create this bill and have it move forward.
Both senators, along with other Democrats and Republicans, have also moved a separate criminal justice reform deal through the Senate. This bill would “reduce the mandatory minimum [sentences] for nonviolent offenders, invest in law enforcement and reward prisoners with time off if they complete programs” making it less likely they’ll commit future crimes, the president said. “I urgently encourage both the Senate and the House to pass these bills.”
Since part of the president’s Newark visit included him holding a roundtable and visiting Integrity House, he became familiar with several examples of incarcerated people who successfully reentered society.
The president was especially proud of Dquan Rosario, 37, and shared his story. Rosario was arrested for his first drug charge when he was 17 and received a ten-year federal sentence for drug distribution when he was 27. Now, at 37, Rosario has been released and is struggling to find his way without reverting back to his old ways of making a living.
Despite difficulties, Rosario realized he couldn’t continue living how he had before and, instead, began striving to succeed in more positive ways.
This moment of realization came to Rosario will he was still in prison, “sitting in [his] cell, around 2009.” Throughout his life, even while in prison, he experienced great family loss.
“I really had no choice but to strive and push forward,” he explained. “If I wasn’t doing it for myself, I was doing it for my brothers and sisters and my mother and father. I just put my head down and worked hard.”
After leaving prison, Rosario joined Newark’s ReNew program and has been counseled and guided by his probation officer, Kevin Egli, and Judge Madeline Cox Arleo.
“It wasn’t just me,” Rosario further explained. “I had a lot of help.” A crucial part of success stories like Rosario’s is working hard and having a good team of people supporting you. “The problem we’re trying to solve here is giving people a foundation through which they can then become productive citizens,” the president said.
ReNew helped Rosario find a job in medical transportation, pursue his EMT certification and become an EMT in Essex County.
“Instead of peddling drugs that are destroying lives,” the president said, “he’s saving lives. He’s making the community better.”
While sharing Rosario’s story, Obama recalled some words Rosario said to him. “I’m not saying that everything’s easy, but you’ve got to want it yourself.”
The president went on to say that Rosario is not alone in his hard work to achieve success and change his life. “There are so many Americans that desperately want to earn a second chance,” he said. That’s where these legislators Booker and Johnson will help the most.
Before leaving, President Obama expressed his hope for the thousands of others like Rosario in America.
“It’s not too late. 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 and that’s why I’m so proud of what Newark’s doing.”