President Obama talks prison reform; this is what it could look like

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NEWARK, N.J. — On Monday and throughout last weekend, thousands of people who'd served time in federal prisons for non-violent drug-related crimes were released early. It's the beginning of what President Barack Obama and many members of Congress from both major parties see as an effort to reform the prison system by scaling down sentences for crimes of that nature.

If it's going to work, however, more resources are needed for newly released and soon-to-be-released prisoners. On Monday afternoon, the president got a sense of what that looks like, thanks to a program in Newark and an ex-convict who's benefited from that program.

"I used drugs for 20 years," Robin Shorter told PIX11 News. "I was a heroin addict."

"I was a school teacher," she continued. "The disease of addiction does not discriminate. I was using heroin while I was teaching. I ended up going to jail the last five years of teaching."

She was incarcerated four different times, she said, and after the last time, in 2003, a judge ordered her to undergo treatment at Integrity House. It's a residential substance abuse treatment facility for ex-convicts founded in 1968 that's had a firm record of success.

Shorter did so well in the program, which also provides job training and moral and social support, that she was eventually hired to work there. She's now the director of Integrity House's women's shelter and outpatient programs.

On Monday, she toured the President of the United States around part of the organization's three block campus of residences, classrooms, counseling offices and other work spaces.

"It is simply amazing," Shorter, 51, said about her transformation, which she said, "[by] just working hard, along with God, led me to this point."

Integrity House now serves 2,000 people a year, many of whom are ex-convicts for drug-related crimes.

Now that more than 6,000 federal prisoners for similar crimes have been released early, what can happen for them is seen in the organization's example.

"We have a recipe for success," said Robert Budsock, Integrity House's president and CEO.

He said that through addiction treatment, job opportunities, safe housing, and building a support network for released convicts, his organization has gone from being a facility treating five men at the time of its founding 47 years ago to helping 2,000 men and women now.

But not every U.S. city has an Integrity House. In order for the president's prison reform plans to work, he acknowledged on Monday that there's a need for wide-ranging support nationwide.

In comments at the Rutgers Newark Law School, President Obama encouraged Congress to approve a bill before lawmakers now that's gotten bipartisan support, and would provide funding for a variety of re-entry initiatives.

One way to help sway Congress to pass it, said Budsock, is to look at raw numbers, which show success. While not having a criminal record himself, Budsock said that he has benefited from his organization's counseling over his three decades of volunteering, and then working, there.

"For every dollar invested in addiction treatment," he told PIX11 News, "there's a return of $7 back, because of less hospital emergency room visits, less incarceration, and more productivity and adding to the tax base."

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