President Obama Emphasizes Need for Criminal Justice Reform


President Barack Obama outlined the “flawed approach to criminal justice” in the United States and underscored the “urgent need for reform” in a commentary published by the Harvard Law Review yesterday.

The 56-page article traces the rise of mass incarceration in America, documents the Obama Administration’s reform efforts, and identifies reform priorities for the incoming administration. From less than half a million in 1980, the number of people incarcerated in the United States has risen to 2.2 million today, President Obama writes — “more than any other country on Earth.” Imprisoning unprecedented numbers of Americans has not improved public safety, despite costing billions of taxpayer dollars and “wast[ing] untold human capital on a system that shuffles too many young people into a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails.”

“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.  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.”

Citing EJI director Bryan Stevenson, Mr. Obama observes that the “tough-on-crime” policies of the 1980s and 1990s have disproportionately impacted poor people and communities of color. “If we are to chart honestly the path for criminal justice reform,” he writes,”we must confront the role of race and bias in shaping the policies that led us to this point.”

The first sitting President to visit a federal prison while in office, Mr. Obama writes that by working with Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reform federal charging and sentencing practices and using his clemency power, he has also become “the first President in decades to leave office with a federal prison population lower than when I took office.” His administration limited the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons and banned it altogether for juveniles; expanded prison rehabilitation programs and “banned the box” to promote federal hiring of formerly incarcerated people; and launched a Task Force on 21st Century Policing in the wake of police shootings of people of color.

President Obama also sought to draw attention to issues including the incarceration of people with mental illness; excessive and racially discriminatory suspensions, expulsions, and arrests of schoolchildren; the prosecution of children in the adult criminal justice system and abuses that children face when they are held in adult jails and prisons; and the “excessive fines and fees, inadequate legal representation, the imposition of excessive bail, and other egregious abuses in too many state and local justice systems that Attorney General Lynch has argued ‘amount to nothing less than the criminalization of poverty.'”

Some advocates contend the Obama Administration did not do enough on criminal justice reform. President Obama acknowledges that “much work is left unfinished,” including the urgent need to pass meaningful sentencing reform legislation. (A bipartisan bill promoted by the Obama Administration was blocked by Republicans and never came to the floor for a vote.)

The article identifies several reform priorities, including addressing the epidemic of gun violence, which has killed more than 100,000 people in the last decade alone; developing an effective public health response to the opioid epidemic; strengthening the forensic sciences; improving the collection and release of criminal justice data and data on police use of force; and restoring the right to vote to formerly incarcerated Americans. “More than six million Americans — disproportionately people of color — cannot vote because of a felony conviction that disenfranchises them,” Mr. Obama writes. “As I’ve said before: ‘[I]f folks have served their time, and they’ve reentered society, they should be able to vote.'”

President Obama concludes by reprising an important principle that he has championed in public statements about the urgent need for criminal justice reform:

How we treat those who have made mistakes 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.