Prison reform is crucial as Obama urges new post-incarceration reforms

President Barack Obama announced a comprehensive plan Nov. 2 to bolster rehabilitation for former inmates. 

At the top of his list is an $8 million grant to fund reentry education programs for those previously in jail and an $8.7 million grant funding permanent supportive housing programs that will provide stable housing and end the cycle of chronic homelessness among those who have been incarcerated. The proposal also includes a push for Congress to “ban the box,” which requires former inmates to detail criminal history on job applications.

The president’s announcement comes after months of campaigning for prison reform. In July, Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. 

The rate of incarceration in the U.S. has snowballed too far to be ignored. We have seen time and time again how systematic bias has targeted the same communities, shackling them to a lifetime spent in and out of jails. Without rehabilitation programs and opportunities for education, jobs and housing, we cannot effect real change. Without support systems in place, offenders will continue to fall through the cracks.

“The system, every study has shown, is biased somewhere institutionally in such a way where an African American youth is more likely to be suspended from school than a white youth for engaging in the same disruptive behavior,” Obama said in an interview with Vice. “More likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be prosecuted aggressively, more likely to get a stiffer sentence.” 

As of Sept. 26, 2015, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported that 37.7 percent of the prison population was black, in spite of the fact that black people only account for 13.2 percent of the total U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This kind of out-and-out discrimination corrodes the heart of our justice system. 

But it gets worse. More than 2.2 million Americans were incarcerated in 2014, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. If we expand the pool to include those who were on probation or released on parole, that number skyrockets to nearly 6.9 million Americans. 

To put these numbers in a global context, the U.S. made up only 5 percent of the total global population in 2013, but a shocking 25 percent of the world’s total prison population, according to former Attorney General Eric Holder.

We need prison reform. Our justice system is robbing our country’s people of color of the life they deserve. We need to provide offenders with the tools to rehabilitate themselves instead of a one-way ticket back to a prison cell.  

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