As a politician who witnessed first-hand the detrimental effects that both over-criminalization and gun violence have on our communities, one of President Obama’s top priorities as Commander-In-Chief was criminal justice reform.
He continued to push for legislation, demanding a mass overhaul of policing practices in America in the face of an endlessly difficult, Republican-run Congress. He’s pardoned over 1,000 men and women serving harsh sentences for non-violent offenses.
But with less than two weeks left in his final term, President Obama is well aware that there’s so much more to be done.
In an enlightening write-up for the Harvard Law Review penned on Jan. 5, POTUS detailed just how much of an impact a sitting president can really have on criminal justice reform.
“Presidencies can exert substantial influence over the direction of the U.S. criminal justice system,” President Obama wrote. “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.”
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Drawing from his experiences as a state legislator, presidential candidate, and sitting president, Obama went on to speak about the work he’s done to impact criminal justice reform at a time when our young people continue to be disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. “I saw firsthand how our criminal justice system exacerbates inequality,” he added. “It takes young people who made mistakes no worse than my own and traps them in an endless cycle of marginalization and punishment.”
He also touched on several ways in which he’s impacted positive changes in the U.S. criminal justice system through legislation and action.
“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,” Obama wrote.
“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.”
The President also spoke on the perspective he gained from becoming the first sitting president to visit a U.S. prison, as well as his unprecedented decision to pardon over 1,200 non-violent offenders.
“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,” Obama continued. “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.”
To read President Obama’s Harvard Law piece on criminal justice reform in full, click here.