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.