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President Barack Obama said Monday that he hopes his legacy will include sparking a new discussion on solving issues of racial inequity, including those that warp the criminal justice system — and that his successor will pick up where he left off.
"One of the things that I've consistently said as president is that I'm the president of all people. I am very proud that my presidency can help to galvanize and mobilize America on behalf of issues of racial disparity and racial injustice," Obama told NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt during a visit Monday to Newark, New Jersey, to highlight efforts to help former inmates return to society.
Obama has used an increasing amount of his second term to talk candidly about the troubled relationship between law enforcement and minority communities, part of a national debate that was sparked by the killings of young black men by white police officers.
"Pretty much up and down the line, what we see is disparities in how white, black, Hispanic suspects are treated, [with] higher arrest rates, tougher sentencing, longer sentences," Obama said.
"Where it's happening, you can't always isolate within the system," he said. "There may be subtle biases that take place. There may be predispositions that end up resulting in these disparities. But we know they're happening."
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His stop in Newark was part of a tour of places that highlight points in the criminal justice system in need of reform. In recent months he has touted community policing work in Camden, New Jersey, visited a federal prison in Oklahoma and traveled to West Virginia to talk about the rise in heroin abuse.
The point is to push for reforms that will make the U.S. justice system — which holds 2.2 million people in prisons and jails at a cost of $80 billion a year — more fair and less costly.
In Newark, Obama focused on efforts to ease former inmates' transition back into society, a process known as re-entry, in which an estimated 600,000 people return from prison every year. Obama visited Integrity House, a renowned residential drug-treatment clinic, and took part in a roundtable on criminal justice reform at Rutgers University at Newark.
Speaking after the Rutgers-Newark event, Obama said he'd been inspired by the stories of former convicts and drug addicts working to turn their lives around and by the communities of supporters, many of them working within federally funded programs, who are helping them.
"When you meet folks who are taking that step to beat addiction and overcoming great odds and you see what they have already accomplished and what they are going to accomplish in the future, you cannot help but feel hopeful," he said.
Obama also announced two initiatives that he said would move re-entry efforts forward. One provides a new set of grants to fund education, job training, legal help and children's services for former prisoners. The second expands to federal agencies the movement to "ban the box" — to delay the point in a job application when a felon is asked his or her criminal history.
The president acknowledged that the steps were small. But he said he hoped they would help build momentum for reform.
He pointed out that more than 70 million Americans have a criminal record — which works out to about 1 of every 3 who are of working age.
"That means millions of Americans have difficulty getting their foot in the door to try to get a job, much less actually hang on to that job," Obama said. "That's bad, not only for individuals, but it's bad for our economy and bad for young people who need more role models who are gainfully employed."
And it will have the long-term goal of reducing crime, Obama said.
"The goal is to prevent crime, to make sure that folks are fairly punished when they break the law," he said. "But the ultimate goal is to make sure folks are law-abiding, self-sufficient, good citizens.
"Everything we do should be designed toward that goal. And if we're doing a good job there, then crime will go down, and it will stay down," he said. "That's our goal, that everyone has a chance to contribute."
Obama was talking about people like Terry Williams, 23, who ended up at Integrity House after entering a jail-diversion program following a drug-distribution arrest. Had he not accepted the offer, he would have faced more than four years in prison, he told Holt in an interview before the president's visit.
For the first time in his life, Williams said, he is proving that he is capable of changing. He doesn't plan on blowing it.
"I realize this is a one-shot deal," Williams said. "This is now or never for me, honestly, because I've been down the road before."