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Obama calls for second chances, lighter sentences

November 2, 2015

A bipartisan movement to cut prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, a priority for President Barack Obama, is coming under criticism from some Republican presidential candidates, threatening chances for a consensus on changing the criminal justice system.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has been struggling to gain traction in the Republican presidential race, accused Obama of undermining law enforcement and being too eager to let potentially dangerous criminals back on the streets during an appearance in Camden just hours before the president arrived in Newark to highlight a program that assists people released from prison as they reenter society.

On a gritty street in downtown Newark, a city beset by violent crime and policing challenges, Obama made an afternoon stop at Integrity House, a state-funded drug and residential treatment center. Obama held up the facility as "a model for the good work that's being done sporadically around the nation." He also met privately with former prisoners, a parole officer and a federal judge to hear more about obstacles to rehabilitation.

"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," Obama said at Rutgers University's law school. "It's not too late."

Aiming to divert some of Obama's limelight to himself, Christie spent the day in Camden, where he met with community and police leaders and touted the city as a national model for police reform. In 2013, the city disbanded its police force and replaced it with a county-run department. No longer bound by union contracts, the department has emphasized community policing, with more officers and improved community engagement.

"It’s pretty evident the president always takes the opportunity to think the worst of the men and women in uniform; always assumes the worst," Christie said. "And his rhetoric has not been supportive at all of the men and women in uniform around this country."

Minimum sentences

More than two million people are incarcerated in the U.S., and each year 600,000 or more are released back into society. There they face a dearth of jobs, housing and mental health services that puts many on the short path back to prison in what Obama has plaintively described as a cycle of incarceration.

Christie’s attack underscores the complex politics surrounding an issue Obama has made a cornerstone of his second term. The U.S. government began releasing about 6,000 inmates from federal prisons over the weekend after the U.S. Sentencing Commission, with four of five members appointed by Obama, retroactively reduced punishments for nonviolent drug offenses. The president, meanwhile, is seeking legislation to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, a proposal that has the support of some prominent Republicans, including billionaire donors Charles and David Koch.

The administration says the changes will reduce the cost of incarceration and give a second chance not just to those who face lengthy incarceration, but their families and communities. In Newark, Obama announced as much as $8 million in educational grants during a meeting with ex-convicts who found employment after leaving prison. He’s also directed the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees federal hiring, to modify government rules to delay inquiries into criminal history until later in the hiring process.

“We’ve got to make sure Americans who’ve paid their debt to society can earn their second chance,” Obama said Monday at Rutgers University’s Center for Law and Justice in Newark.

Police scrutiny

Obama’s critics, including Christie, argue that increased scrutiny and criticism of police officers have contributed to an increase in violent crime in some major cities. They also warn that people released from jail are likely to commit crimes again.

“It’s wonderful for the president to come to New Jersey and acknowledge the work that’s been done in New Jersey by the leaders of New Jersey,” Christie said, before signing a proclamation naming Nov. 5 "Law Enforcement Day" in the state. “What’s happening here today and what we’re celebrating has nothing to do with anything the federal government has done.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest accused Christie of showboating for political gain, and said his attack was evidence that "his record in this regard may not be sterling." Christie’s remarks, Earnest said, were "not aimed at solving an actual problem other than the problem that exists with his poll numbers."

Senate legislation

Legislation that would overhaul mandatory minimum sentences is progressing through Congress. Obama has said he wants lawmakers to complete their work by the end of the calendar year. Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator also running for the Republican nomination, supports the concept and met with Obama earlier this year to discuss legislation. Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, promoted her criminal justice plan during a campaign stop in Atlanta on Oct. 30.

The Senate Judiciary Committee in late October passed a bill, 15-5, that would allow courts to reduce sentences for inmates convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. The measure was sponsored by the committee’s chairman, Iowa Republican Charles Grassley.

As Christie’s remarks suggest, however, the issue splits the Republican party. Some Republican senators, including Ted Cruz of Texas, another presidential candidate, and David Vitter of Louisiana, who faces a run-off election this month for governor of his home state, have said they oppose the Grassley bill.

Vitter last week released an ad accusing his opponent in the gubernatorial race, Democratic State Rep. John Bel Edwards, of supporting Obama’s sentencing proposals. Vitter’s ad said Edwards would release “dangerous thugs, drug dealers back into our neighborhoods.”

Political considerations may lead the Senate majority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to delay debate on the Grassley bill.

Ban the box

Without new laws, Obama is limited to modest steps he can take on his own. For example, Obama has asked Congress to "ban the box" — shorthand for prohibiting the government and its contractors from asking job applicants about criminal histories on applications.

Obama announced he's directed the government personnel office to wait until later in the hiring process to ask about criminal histories — a step most federal agencies have already taken, the White House said. The Obama administration will also clarify its "one strike" rule that prevents many people with arrest records from living in public housing.

Obama followed up his discussion on criminal justice by raising money for Democratic political campaigns at two events in New York. 

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