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President Obama urges criminal justice reform with speech at Rutgers-Newark

Photo by Photo by Marielle Sumergido | The Daily Targum

Twenty years ago, 17-year-old Dequan Rosario was on the streets of Newark peddling drugs. At 27, he was sentenced to a 10-year federal prison sentence for drug distribution.

After a decade in prison, Rosario was released, clutching only a bus ticket and enough money for two slices of pizza. Besides that, he was unemployed, homeless, and for the most part, alone.

At that moment, the options for staying afloat could have turned back to dealing drugs. Instead, something clicked inside Rosario's head, President Barack Obama announced from behind a podium inside the Herbert M. Ellend Atrium at the S.I. Newhouse Center for Law and Justice at the Rutgers—Newark campus.

“(Rosario) had the motivation to say ‘I’m going to change,’ which is pretty hard to do when you’re 37,” Obama said, fixing his attention on Rosario, who was outfitted in a black-and-red plaid blazer and seated toward the center of the atrium.Dequan Rosario

Rosario is now an EMT in Newark and a graduate of a reentry and reform program by the Department of Justice, but not all released inmates are lucky enough to integrate themselves back into society after years of incarceration, Obama said. But the City of Newark is taking strides to reform the criminal justice system.

Obama was in Newark to visit Integrity House, a drug rehabilitation center, and to recognize the successes of the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Educations in Prison Consortium, abbreviated to NJ-STEP, a higher-education learning program for inmates.

“Here in Newark, when it comes to rehabilitating prisoners and reintegrating former inmates into society, we’ve got organizations that are doing extraordinary (things),” Obama said.

Still, despite progress made by organizations in Newark, the United States still ranks first for imprisoning the most individuals, he said.

There are more than 2.2 million Americans behind bars, Obama said. Of those 2.2 million, a disproportionate number are either black or Latino.

About 600,000 inmates will be released every year, but many of them, like Rosario, will experience poverty or homelessness, and many of the the laws and policies in place do little to help former inmates, he said.

But Obama said his administration is in the process of spearheading three initiatives to reintegrate former inmates back into society.

His administration is distributing Pell grants to former inmates, which will allow them to take college courses, courtesy of the federal government.

Obama drew on his “Promise Zones” for his second initiative, which is a collection of five U.S. cities — San Antonio, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Kentucky Highlands and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma — to help improve living and economic conditions by partnering with local communities and businesses.

The third initiative, which drew wide applause from the audience, was to “Ban the Box,” a move that would remove the question inquiring about any criminal history from job applications.

“If you answer yes, a lot of the time you’re not getting a call,” he said.

According to the National Institute of Justice, between 60 to 75 percent of former inmates are unable to find work during their first year out.

Around 70 million Americans have some kind of criminal record, and a fraction are jailed, Obama said. But a criminal record often effectively disqualifies individuals from being a full participant in society, even if they already paid their debt to society.

This year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-Va.) signed an executive order that outlawed state agencies from including the box on their job applications. And 13 other states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico and Rhode Island — took bigger strides and abolished the box entirely.

“I feel hopeful that we’ll move forward with more initiatives for reentry, especially in federal courts,” said Madeline Cox Arleo, United States Judge of the United States District Court in New Jersey.

Rosario, who was flocked by well-wishers as he exited the building, was visibly excited.

“I’ve never had this feeling in my life,” he said. “I don’t have any kids, so the birth of a child hasn’t really hit me, but this is as closest to that as you can get. It’s surreal. Talking to the president, sitting next to the most powerful man in the world it’s — it’s amazing.”

He said he is hopeful for his future, and for the progress that the criminal justice system will make.

“You just got to give people a chance,” he said. “If they don’t get a chance, then they can’t prove themselves to be right or wrong.”