- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Though President Obama gave barely a passing mention to criminal justice reform during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, his administration was back to highlighting the issue Wednesday as Attorney General Loretta Lynch planned to visit a prison reentry program.

Advocates for prison reform and gun control had hoped the president would dedicate significant portions of his final address to the issues, encouraged by the president’s guest list for the event, which included a convicted felon and an empty chair symbolically set aside to represent victims of gun violence. But instead, each issue only received a passing mention.

“I hope we can work together this year on some bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform, and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse,” said Mr. Obama, in an early reference during his speech to a proposal before Congress that would reduce mandatory minimums.

Meanwhile the topic of reducing gun violence, which garnered headlines last week when the president announced a plan to broaden the scope of firearms dealer who must conduct background checks on prospective buyers, was mentioned just once in passing.

“I will keep pushing for progress on the work that I believe still needs to be done: fixing a broken immigration system, protecting our kids from gun violence, equal pay for equal work, paid leave, raising the minimum wage,” Mr. Obama said.

On Wednesday, as part of an effort to dispatch Mr. Obama’s cabinet members into local communities to engage residents, Ms. Lynch is expected to visit the Suffolk County House of Correction at South Bay in Boston where she will meet with incarcerated individuals. There she will highlight the Boston Reentry Initiative, a program that aims to reduce recidivism rates and to prepare convicts before they are released back into the community. Later in the day, she is expected to deliver remarks on criminal justice reform.

The president has made criminal justice reform a top priority for his final year in office, and while legislation to overhaul the system has been introduced in both the House and the Senate, neither chamber has yet to vote on the proposals.

Among those who expressed dissatisfaction at the lack of air time that Mr. Obama dedicated to criminal justice issues was the National Sheriff’s Association, which issued a statement after the address noting that a lack of mental care for inmates in the nation’s jails remains an ongoing concern for law enforcement.

“While we were pleased San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon and other law enforcement and first responder officials were guests at this evening’s State of the Union address, we are concerned that President Obama did not address challenges desperately needing his attention to improve public safety and support law enforcement personnel,” the association said in its statement.

In addition to Ms. Lynch, other cabinet members who will be engaging communities on public safety matters in the coming days include Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who will travel to Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan, to meet with resettled refugees and to discuss local efforts to counter violent extremism.

White House National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli will also discuss efforts being undertaken to prevent prescription drug abuse and heroin use in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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