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Obama, Ryan Speak Same Language on Criminal Justice Overhaul

Ryan addresses Congress on Oct. 29 after being sworn in as speaker. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Ryan addresses Congress on Oct. 29 after being sworn in as speaker. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 6:05 p.m. | Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s record suggests issues like helping former inmates find work on the outside might just be an early area of collaboration with President Barack Obama, who traveled to New Jersey Monday to unveil a list of executive actions aimed at doing just that.  

Obama wants Congress to “build on” criminal justice changes he announced Monday by sending him legislation that would rid the federal hiring process of questions about prior criminal history, an issue that earned him applause during his address at Rutgers University in Newark. With Republicans in the majority of both chambers, the president was careful to frame the criminal justice overhaul effort as bipartisan, mentioning Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.  

“A lot of time, that [criminal] record disqualifies you from fully participating in our society. Even if you’ve paid your debt to society,” Obama said. “That is bad not only for the individual, it’s bad for the economy.”  

“We’ve got to make sure that Americans who have paid their debt to society receive a second chance,” he added.  

Ryan, now in his first full week as speaker, offered as Budget chairman in 2014 a plan to fight poverty that included an entire section on overhauling the criminal justice system. On the growth in incarceration rates, the blueprint stated that “perhaps what’s most troubling is the effect on individuals and families.”  

It also included one of the items the White House is pushing the hardest in its new actions: assisting people as they leave prison. The plan endorsed “a risk- and needs-assessment system in federal prisons while [also] expanding enrollment in rehabilitative programming to reduce recidivism.” And Ryan proposed allowing “non-violent and low-risk inmates to use enrollment to earn time off their prison stay towards pre-release custody.”  

A Ryan spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about the new White House actions.  

Even before Air Force One departed the Washington area, the White House was busy selling Obama’s rehabilitation and reintegration actions — and urging Congress to make changes to existing laws to give former inmates a better shot on the outside.  

The White House offered a snapshot of the policy changes ahead of the president’s trip, spotlighting criminal justice issues and his continued calls for congressional legislation.  

In addition to shifting the box-checking about past criminal history until later in the hiring process, the administration proposed $8 million in Education Department spending over three years for incarcerated individuals to bolster their education, and providing additional training for individuals with criminal records who want to seek technology sector jobs.  

“The president has also called on Congress to pass meaningful criminal justice reform, including reforms that reduce recidivism for those who have been in prison and are re-entering society,” White House officials said, calling the Senate Judiciary Committee’s bill “an important step forward.”  

That measure passed the committee, 15-5, with Republican and Democratic support. It would, among other things, lower mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders, target violent criminals and hand judges more say in doling out sentences for less-serious crimes, according to a Judiciary Committee fact sheet.  

The Senate measure matches Obama’s actions on rehabilitation by aiming to lessen recidivism — an individual’s pattern of falling back into the legal system — by assisting prisoners with the transition back into civilian society. As Obama pushes for Congress to do even more on the issue during his final months, he just might find a willing ally in the newly installed House speaker.  



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