By Ayesha Rascoe and Julia Harte
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Obama administration on Friday rolled out a series of education and work training initiatives focused on helping convicted criminals avoid returning to prison, part of President Barack Obama’s legacy-shaping effort to overhaul the U.S. criminal justice system as he prepares to leave office.
The measures include a program that will link 67 colleges and universities with 141 correctional facilities to provide education and training to about 12,000 inmates. The program will offer federal Pell grants to prisoners, with an emphasis on inmates set to be released within five years of starting classes.
“The bottom line is that our communities are less safe when the stigma of incarceration prevents Americans from truly ever shedding their prison jumpsuit,” White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said on a call with reporters.
“When people leave prisons and can’t turn their lives around, they too often end up back behind bars,” she said.
Other programs unveiled on Friday will offer $31 million in grants for organizations to offer occupational training and apprenticeship opportunities for young adults and more than $5 million to organizations that help inmates prepare for employment.
Obama’s top cabinet members for justice, education, labor and housing praised the reentry initiatives as common-sense reforms that should have been in place long ago.
“All the little things that people take for granted generate tremendous obstacles for people who are coming out of the criminal justice system,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at a panel hosted by the left-leaning Center for American Progress think tank. Obtaining photo identification or being considered for job opportunities were two examples.
“In order to compete, you have to be allowed in the arena,” she added.
Hiring people with a criminal history “is not an act of charity, it is an act of enlightened self-interest,” Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said, commending Maryland’s largest private employer, the Johns Hopkins Hospital, for employing so many people with criminal backgrounds.
Despite bipartisan support for reform of mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent federal drug offenders, legislation addressing the issue has stalled in Congress.
Jarrett said the White House remains hopeful that criminal justice reform will be approved by lawmakers.
“We would like to see those bills move forward as quickly as possible,” she said. “We are going to do everything we can to work with members on both sides of the aisle to make sure it comes to fruition.”
(Editing by Leslie Adler and David Gregorio)