In 1990, President Barack Obama was named the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. At that time the review had been around for over a century.
This week, Obama, the first African-American President of the United States, became the first sitting president to write for the Harvard Law Review.
He returned to his Harvard roots by publishing a far-reaching and comprehensive commentary on criminal justice reform. President Obama’s 59-page commentary “The President’s Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform” outlines a plan to continue reforms in the criminal justice system.
Obama warns, “We simply cannot afford to spend $80 billion annually on incarceration.” He goes on to write that America cannot write off the 70 million Americans — almost one in three adults — with some form of criminal record. The country cannot continue to release 600,000 inmates each year without preparing those inmates to reintegrate into society.
The president strongly admonished policymakers not to “ignore the humanity of 2.2 million men and women currently in U.S. jails ... (or) deny the legacy of racism that continues to drive inequality in how the justice system is experienced by so many Americans.”
According to Harvard Magazine, Obama touted the successes of his administration in reducing mandatory-minimum sentencing requirements; signing the Fair Sentencing Act, which eliminated the disparity in punishment for crimes involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine; and banned solitary confinement in federal prisons for juveniles and for low-level crimes. He’s also commuted the sentences of more than 1,000 inmates.
With two weeks left in office, Obama urged future presidents to continue building on his administration’s efforts to reform the criminal justice system. “Presidencies exert substantial influence over the direction of the U.S. criminal justice system,” Obama wrote.
“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 principle,” Obama wrote.
President Obama outlined seven specific recommendations for continued reform, including the passage of meaningful sentencing reform legislation. He contends “gun violence is an epidemic playing out across the country every day.” There must be some common sense restrictions to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally unstable.
He lamented the fact that more Americans die from drug overdoses than from traffic accidents and more than three out of five of these deaths involve prescription opioids. Reform must address the easy access to opioids and stem the inevitable transition to heroin.
The president also supports a wide range of research and policy initiatives to strengthen the forensic sciences including “disciplines from DNA analysis and fingerprints, to tire and tread marks, ballistics, handwriting, trace-evidence and toxicological analyses, and digital evidence.”
However, will Obama’s recommendations fall on deaf ears?
Given President-elect Donald J. Trump’s law-and-order persona, his defiant and unsubstantiated rhetoric about rising crime rates, along with his team of advisers — including his nominee for Attorney General — who believe the main problem with incarceration is that there are not enough people in prison, the idea of justice reform is, at best, a far off dream, reported The Marshall Project.
Trump has pledged to dismantle at least some of Obama’s reforms. Not to mention, Attorney General-nominee Jeff Sessions intends to curtail federal oversight of troubled police departments, escalate the war on drugs — including marijuana — and accelerate deportations of undocumented immigrants.
There is some hope. “Criminal justice reform will be one of the legislative bills I plan to bring up early on,” Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Politico. “It cleared the (Judiciary) committee with a broad bipartisan majority in the last Congress, and I don’t expect that to change.”
— Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.