This fascinating document written by outgoing President Barack Obama and recently published on the Harvard Law Review website is well worth reading in full and deserves to be a significant part of the inevitable legacy discourse:- (in the interests of clarity, I've removed the links)
The President’s Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform
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.
Criminal justice is a complex system, administered at all levels of government and shaped by a range of actors. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of so many in my Administration, the bipartisan push for reform from federal, state, and local officials, and the work of so many committed citizens outside government, America has made important strides. We have reduced overlong sentences for offenders and removed barriers for those with criminal records. We have made progress in helping people, especially young people, avoid getting entangled in the justice system in the first place. This Commentary talks about those achievements — and the tools Presidents can use to effect meaningful change throughout the system. And it emphasizes the continuing historic opportunity to make further progress.
Part I details the current criminal justice landscape and emphasizes the urgent need for reform. It would be a tragic mistake to treat criminal justice reform as an agenda limited to certain communities. All Americans have an interest in living in safe and vibrant neighborhoods, in raising their children in a country of equal treatment and second chances, and in entrusting their liberty to a justice system that remains true to our highest ideals. 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. 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.
Part II shows how the President can drive significant reform at the federal level. Working with Congress, my Administration helped secure bipartisan sentencing reform legislation reducing the crack-to-powder-cocaine disparity. As an executive branch, we’ve been able to make important changes to federal charging policies and practices, the administration of federal prisons, and federal policies relating to reentry. And through the presidential pardon power, I have commuted the sentences of more than 1000 prisoners. Even though there are important structural and prudential constraints on how the President can directly influence criminal enforcement, these changes illustrate that presidential administrations can and do shape the direction of the federal criminal justice system in lasting and profound ways.
Part III details the approaches that Presidents can take to promote change at the state and local level, recognizing that the state and local justice systems tend to have a far broader and more pervasive impact on the lives of most Americans than does the federal justice system. While the President and the executive branch play a less direct role in these systems, there are still opportunities — as my Administration’s work demonstrates — to advance reform through a combination of federal-local partnerships, the promulgation of best practices, enforcement, federal grant programs, and assembling reform-minded jurisdictions struggling with similar challenges.
Part IV highlights some of the work that remains, focusing on reforms that are supported by broad consensus and could be completed in the near term. These include passing bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation in Congress, adopting commonsense measures to keep firearms out of the hands of those who are a threat to others or themselves, finding better ways to address the tragic opioid epidemic in this country, implementing critical reforms to forensic science, improving criminal justice data, and using technology to enhance trust in and the effectiveness of law enforcement.
There is so much work to be done. Yet I remain hopeful that together, we are moving in the right direction. Crime remains near historic lows, prison populations are decreasing, taxpayer dollars are being better spent, and more Americans are landing on their feet and taking advantage of the second chances they’ve earned. It’s critical we build on this in the ways I’ve outlined above. But at the end of the day, those entrusted with influence over the direction of the criminal justice system must also remember that reform is about more than the dollars we spend and the data we collect. 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.