Obama On Obama On Criminal Reform

In the waning hours of his second term, the President of the United States of America was faced with an awful decision. Should he spend what remained of his time and capital accomplishing the criminal reforms he believed to be critical to the nation, or write a 53-page article for Harvard Law Review?

President Obama opted for the second choice.* The first three paragraphs of his introduction will not only give you the flavor of what’s to come (footnotes omitted, as they cite back to his own words).

Presidencies can exert substantial influence over the direction of the U.S. criminal justice system. Those privileged to serve as President and in senior roles in the executive branch have an obligation to use that influence to enhance the fairness and effectiveness of the justice system at all phases. 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. And how we police our communities and the kinds of problems we ask our criminal justice system to solve can have a profound impact on the extent of trust in law enforcement and significant implications for public safety.

Criminal justice reform has been a focus of my entire career — even since before my time at the Harvard Law Review. As a community organizer, I saw firsthand how our criminal justice system exacerbates inequality. It takes young people who made mistakes no worse than my own and traps them in an endless cycle of marginalization and punishment. More than twenty years ago, I wrote about my experience in neighborhoods where “prison records had been passed down from father to son for more than a generation.” As a state legislator in Illinois, I worked with law enforcement and civil rights leaders to push for reduced sentences, videotaped police interrogations, and other reforms, including legislation in favor of second chances and against racial profiling. As a candidate for President, I called for addressing unwarranted disparities in criminal sentencing, emphasized the harms of profiling, and set out new initiatives to help the formerly incarcerated earn second chances.

Throughout my time in office, using an array of tools and avenues, I have pushed for reforms that make the criminal justice system smarter, fairer, and more effective at keeping our communities safe. I have tried to bring that case directly to the American people in a number of unprecedented ways. I sat down in the Oval Office with rank-and-file police officers and saw up close how a new way of policing has brought hope to cities written off for being among the country’s most dangerous. As the first sitting President to go inside a federal prison, I heard directly from prisoners and corrections officers. I consoled the families of fallen police officers and the families of children killed by gun violence. I met with men and women battling drug abuse, rehab coaches, and those working on new solutions for treatment. I have sought to reinvigorate the use of the clemency power, commuting more federal sentences than my eleven predecessors combined. I launched programs that have expanded opportunity and mentoring for young people, including boys and young men of color who disproportionately suffer from our current system’s failings. And I signed sentencing reform legislation and met with members of Congress from both parties who share my belief that criminal justice reform is a priority. At the same time, I also made a point of emphasizing the importance of maintaining a strong justice system and underscored how that system depends on public servants who devote their lives to promoting the rule of law and ensuring public safety.

It’s wonderful that President Obama arrived at the epiphany that “presidencies can exert substantial influence over the direction of the U.S. criminal justice system,” and few would doubt the accuracy of that view. It’s unfortunate, however, that it took the president so long, given his explicit experience to the contrary, to figure this out.

As for his homage to the great reforms he’s accomplished, the conflicting positions in these three paragraphs alone are enough to make your head hurt. Add to that a point raised by Radley Balko, that Attorney Generals under Obama have steadfastly refused to embrace the rigors of science in the courtroom.

And this is why Obama’s acquiescence to Lynch and the FBI is so maddening and utterly disappointing. This is an administration that claims to believe in science. The science here isn’t in dispute. It is clear and overwhelming. This is an administration that claims to care about justice. The injustices here aren’t in dispute. They are real and thoroughly documented. And they will almost certainly continue.

Obviously, Radley failed to read the President’s Harvard Law Review article, or he would feel deeper appreciation for all that’s been accomplished rather than “maddened” at the rejection of science.

Then again, as the president explains, he’s seen “up close how a new way of policing has brought hope…”if you wondered what became of that “hope and change” thing, now you know. The end of his administration is hardly the time to ruin his legacy of monumental achievements with science.

*While President Obama offers no explanation for why he made this choice, it’s likely that he has more important things to do after January 20th which would preclude him from writing this law review article.

33 thoughts on “Obama On Obama On Criminal Reform

  1. Ehud gavron

    We’ll said. Too many stones unturned like civil forfeiture, whistleblowers retaliation, forceful deportation…

    Good morning and happy New year to you,


  2. John Barleycorn

    He’ll yeah! After The 20th rumor has it Obama is gonna teach criminal justice at a community college, every other semester, that is going to be renamed after him on the South Side of Chicago.

    I am gonna enroll even if I have to pay out of state tuition. He has “secrets” that he was too busy to share while he was in the white house.

    Nice of him to finally leak the syllabus before he splits.

    It’s gonna be awesome!!!


      1. Keith

        I could have sworn he went to Georgetown, but I checked and Jack did go there for undergrad. Carry on.

          1. Keith

            I’ve been reading your blog for long enough that I’m going to assume this is based on lived experience and not contemporary evidence.

  3. Billy Bob

    53 pages sounds like a lot, but in true law-review fashion, it’s half full of footnotes scarcely worth looking at. So let’s call it 26 1/2 pages! Still, twenty-six pages is an awful lot of accomplishments. Harvard Law was not going to pass on this one, Harvey Silverglate-breath.

    Who wrote this codswaddle wrapped in gibberish paper? Certainly not the prez whom we voted for and luv so much! Here’s the part we like: “And even as violent crime has plummeted over the past two decades, the evidence indicates that our massive levels of incarceration have not made us safer.” [Footnote 28] (p. 9).
    Well, you can stop right there. No need to read further. Evidence indicates and research shows,… Oh really!?! We were totally unaware,… Now we feel so much better, if not safer. Now that is what I call a non-sequitur worthy of note at the highest levels of academia.

    Finally, be reminded, “As Prez, I felt a unique responsibility to highlight…” (p. 11). There we go again with those pesky little feelings, the bane of the host’s existence as blawger par excellence.

    1. Agammamon

      Christ man! *Never* read the whole article. It just encourages their egos. Just read enough that you *know* everything the author will and intends to say, then jump down into the comments.

  4. LTMG

    The article, all 53 pages of it, is long on ideas, fairly long on starting actions and initiatives, and very short on quantifiable accomplishments. The article doesn’t pass the “so what?” test.

    1. SHG Post author

      If you read the words carefully, you may find even the “starting actions and initiatives” are couched in words that don’t quite mean what they seem to mean.

  5. Wilbur

    Just from the three excerpted paragraphs, President Obama has surely set the record for the most sentences beginning with the word “I”, in any published work in a law review.

    At least his writing is consistent with his speeches.

      1. Keith

        After the asterisk, what more was there to say?
        I’m surprised he didn’t put down:
        ∗ Former Professor, University of Chicago Law School and President of the United States

  6. Jim Tyre

    Obviously, Radley failed to read the President’s Harvard Law Review article
    You’re harsh. Radley’s piece was yesterday, the L.Rev. article was embargoed until this morning. ow could Radley possibly have read it?!?

      1. Jim Tyre

        That’s what happens when one tries to type an in-joke with one hand. (No, don’t go there. Just don’t.)

  7. the other rob

    It would have been nice if, somewhere in the first three paragraphs, he had entertained the possibility that accused persons might be factually innocent.

    A belated Happy New Year, Scott.

    1. SHG Post author

      Happy New Year, OR. His first three paragraphs were jammed full of equivocating. There’s no room for innocence when equivocating.



    Obama’s article “resonated” with the “lived experience” of the President of the Harvard Law Review. He wrote a piece to accompany the publication of the President’s article.

    Emphasizing his own “criminal history,” the Harvard Law Review President wrote:

    Speaking for myself, as well, this piece has special resonance. Sixteen years ago, as a thirteen-year-old growing up in New Jersey, I was a juvenile defendant who had pled guilty to criminal trespassing. Now I’m the president of the Harvard Law Review, and I’ve just had the privilege of helping to publish an article on criminal justice reform by the President of the United States.

    That would not have happened for me without a second chance — a second chance that many people, and especially people who don’t look like me, don’t get. So it is moving for me personally to be able to help publish The President’s Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform, a piece about the importance of second chances, and how to make real the promise of redemption, on which so much else rests.

    Harvard Law Review president on publishing Obama, Michael Zuckerman ’17 reflects, republished in Harvard Law Review Today, January 5, 2017

    Who knew that the head of the Harvard law review was a former bad ass criminal? I bet the young man also got into a bar fight at a tea party! In short, such “lived experiences” by young elites like the Harvard Law Review President are both belly-laughable and deeply disturbing.

    All the best.


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