USA Justice First Look

Obama pens Harvard Law Review opus on criminal justice reform

Looking back at his administration's accomplishments, while laying out a road map for future reforms, the president leaves office with an emphasis on reforming the American justice system. 

U.S. President Barack Obama attends a military full honor review farewell ceremony given in his honor, accompanied by Defense Secretary Ash Carter at Joint Base Myer-Henderson in Washington, D.C. on January 4, 2017.
Carlos Barria/ Reuters
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President Obama penned an article published online Thursday by the Harvard Law Review in which he lays out the criminal justice reforms his administration has made and outlines the continued path to reform as he sees it.

The article, which spans 55 pages of the January print edition, lists specific accomplishments of the past eight years and advocates for more near-term action on key proposals that have earned bipartisan backing in recent years, as well as related issues such as gun control reform and efforts to address the opioid crisis. Overarching all these specific policies is a fundamental understanding that the US criminal justice systems are punishing not only individuals who make mistakes, but also society itself, Mr. Obama writes.

"We simply cannot afford to spend $80 billion annually on incarceration, to write off the seventy million Americans – that’s almost one in three adults – with some form of criminal record, to release 600,000 inmates each year without a better program to reintegrate them into society, or to ignore the humanity of 2.2 million men and women currently in U.S. jails and prisons and over 11 million men and women moving in and out of U.S. jails every year," Obama writes. "In addition, we cannot deny the legacy of racism that continues to drive inequality in how the justice system is experienced by so many Americans."

Obama, the nation's first black president, served as the Harvard Law Review's first black president in 1990. But his decision to write for the publication at this alma mater once again was more than nostalgic, as Harvard Magazine's Marina Bolotnikova writes.

"The article marks one of many steps the president has taken in the last several weeks to defend his legacy as a new Republican-controlled Congress, with many members who obstructed what he tried to accomplish while in office, starts work," Ms. Bolotnikova notes.

Obama's successor, President-elect Donald Trump, billed himself as the "law-and-order candidate" during his campaign. Although his policy proposals have not focused on criminal justice reforms, he has vowed to undo Obama's executive actions and regulations, including those dealing with justice matters, as The Marshall Project reported in August. Such actions include efforts to expand background checks for gun buyers, efforts to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for nonviolent drug offenses, and limitations on solitary confinement.

Obama has also made commutations a cornerstone of his legacy, reducing or eliminating sentences for 1,324 people, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last month – a point Obama raises in his article, noting that he has commuted more sentences than his 11 predecessors combined.

"By shifting the narrative to the way clemency can be used to correct injustices in the system – and reminding people of the value of second chances – I worked to reinvigorate the clemency power and to set a precedent that will make it easier for future Presidents, governors, and other public officials to use it for good," Obama wrote. "These actions are no substitute for achieving lasting changes to federal sentencing law through legislation, but they are a way to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality to the system."

The number of inmates in state and federal prisons has more than quadrupled, from fewer than 500,000 in 1980 to an estimated 2.2 million today, more than any other country in the world, Obama noted.

"We keep more people behind bars than the top thirty-five European countries combined, and our rate of incarceration dwarfs not only other Western allies but also countries like Russia and Iran," he wrote.

"Many people who commit crimes deserve punishment, and many belong behind bars. But too many, especially nonviolent drug offenders, serve unnecessarily long sentences," he added.

The path forward should include sentencing reforms, new measures to curb gun violence, health treatment for drug users, stronger forensic science to identify wrongful convictions, improved law enforcement data collection and technology, and a restored right to vote for felons who have finished serving their sentences, Obama argued.

"How we treat those who have made mistakes," Obama concluded, "speaks to who we are as a society and is a statement about our values – about our dedication to fairness, equality, and justice, and about how to protect our families and communities from harm, heal after loss and trauma, and lift back up those among us who have earned a chance at redemption."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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