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Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
Obama was the first sitting US president to visit a federal prison.
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Obama returns to the Harvard Law Review to chronicle his criminal justice legacy

By Hanna Kozlowska

US President Barack Obama returned to the pages of the Harvard Law Review, where he served as the first black editor in history during his time at law school, to outline his criminal justice legacy and to leave some parting words on the topic for his successor.

“How we treat citizens who make mistakes (even serious mistakes), pay their debt to society, and deserve a second chance reflects who we are as a people and reveals a lot about our character and commitment to our founding principles,” Obama writes.

In the wide-ranging commentary piece, Obama underlines how important criminal justice reform has been throughout his presidency, and his career before that. He touts his administration’s achievements, which include working with Congress to reduce the racially-charged disparity in sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine, his record number of commutations, prohibiting federal agencies from asking about a job applicant’s criminal record, and encouraging local-level reform. 

He also gets personal when describing his efforts to promote his quest for changes in the criminal justice system, such as visiting a federal prison or inviting formerly incarcerated individuals at the White House. He says that his office required of him a degree of restraint that he wouldn’t need to adhere to as a private citizen:

“Oftentimes, it is a viral YouTube video that leads the evening news, incites protests, and drives calls for reform. Like millions of others, I would watch these videos, but the office makes it difficult to comment the way a journalist or activist would without being accused of prejudging the facts or influencing the legal process.”

Obama acknowledges that work on criminal justice is far from being done. Recent data from the Bureau of Justice statistics showed that the incarcerated population is falling in the United States, but this decrease is small and sluggish—the country’s incarceration rate is still exceptionally high: 1 in 37 US adults is under some form of correctional supervision, be it jail, prison, parole or probation. 

To put the problem in context, the president writes: “If one includes the cost of jail and prison at the state and local level, the total U.S. budget for incarceration rises to a staggering $81 billion, enough to fund transformative initiatives like universal preschool for every three- and four-year-old in America—initiatives that can change the odds for so many kids, including by keeping them out of the juvenile and criminal justice systems in the first place.”

Although it is largely a list of achievements, Obama wanted to frame his piece as also guide of sorts, outlining the tools a president can use to reform the criminal justice system. Without mentioning his successor’s name—but calling out Congress—he outlines what else needs to be done:

  • Sentencing reform, that would, among others, reduce minimum sentencing
  • “Commonsense” solutions to reduce gun violence, such as expanding background checks
  • Tackling the opioid epidemic, which “is a public health problem that requires a public health response.”
  • Improving forensic science and data gathering in criminal justice
  • Making better use of technology such as police body cameras to “promote trust in law enforcement”
  • Restoring the right to vote for formerly incarcerated felons

Although there is “so much work to be done,” Obama, ever the optimist, “remain[s] hopeful that together, we are moving in the right direction.”