President Obama ate lunch on Wednesday with seven former inmates who received commutations during his and the last two administrations.
Obama took the group to Busboys and Poets, a popular eatery on Washington’s bustling 14th St. NW.
Three people whose sentences were commuted by Obama were joined by two who were freed by former President George W. Bush and two by former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBusiness coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader Obamas, Bushes and Clintons joining new effort to help Afghan refugees MORE.
Obama called overhauling the nation’s sentencing laws a "top priority" and said commutations and pardons are an important way "to show people what a second chance looks like.”
The president said he is "still hopeful that criminal justice reform can get done" in Congress, and praised Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (R-Wis.) for praise for his support for the effort.
The lunch meeting came on the same day Obama commuted sentences for 61 federal prisoners convicted of drug offenses. Those prisoners have not yet been freed and did not eat with Obama.
The events are designed to call attention to Obama’s criminal justice reform push, an issue that has faded to the background in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign.
The president greeted the group in the Roosevelt Room of the White House and posed for a group picture in the Oval Office before departing.
“Turns out I’ve got an opening in my schedule, so let’s have some lunch,” he told the group during an encounter that was broadcast on Facebook.
Obama noted the group includes people who have successfully turned their lives around after serving years in prison.
He singled out Phillp Emmert, who was granted clemency by Bush in 2006 after serving 14 years in prison on a methamphetamine offense. The Iowa man took advantage of job training programs while in custody and now repairs air conditioners at a Veterans Affairs medical facility.
The president called Emmert "an example of what we mean when we talk about second chances."
Busboys and Poets is owned by Andy Shallal, a well-known liberal activist in Washington who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2014.
Shallal, who chairs a city workforce investment council, "banned the box" at all of his restaurants, meaning that he doesn’t ask about a perspective employee's criminal history at the outset of the job application process.
--This report was updated at 2:15 p.m.