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Criminal Justice Reform

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”[1]

Few presidents, if any, match the effort President Obama made towards criminal justice reform. As a priority in his administration, Obama was the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. He commuted “more federal sentences than [his] eleven predecessors combined.”[2] He “consoled the families of fallen police officers and the families of children killed by gun violence.”[3] He presided over “the first reduction in the federal prison population in thirty-three years.”[4] The federal prison population first dropped in 2013 and continues to fall today.

As his presidency concludes, Obama recently penned a law review article for Harvard about his efforts towards criminal justice reform. Politicians often boast on the campaign trail that they will be tough on crime, especially when it comes to terrorism and mass shootings. It may seem unpopular to campaign about the need for criminal justice reform. But as President Obama notes “unlike so many issues that divide Washington, D.C., criminal justice is an area in which there is increasing bipartisan agreement.”[5] Even so, two federal sentencing reform bills fell short over the past few years. Obama helped forge a path towards sensible sentencing reform, but even he notes that much work is left to be done.

In his commentary, Obama is incredibly pragmatic and realistic about the barriers to criminal justice reform. About sentencing reform, he writes “[m]any people who commit crimes deserve punishment, and many belong behind bars. But too many, especially nonviolent drug offenders, serve unnecessarily long sentences.”[6] One way to strike a chord with advocates across the aisle is to talk about how much money we can save through reforms. To drive this point home, Obama notes “[w]e 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.”[7]

A deeper dive into the numbers finds that serial offenders often ring up the largest tabs on the criminal justice system. Obama cites a program in Miami-Dade County, Florida “where the county combined data across their health care and criminal justice systems and discovered that just ninety-seven people with serious mental illness accounted for $13.7 million in services between 2010 and 2014.”[8] The president goes on to note that these serial offenders are spending most of their time in jails and hospitals than they are in treatment, which is driving up the bill.

Criminal justice reform is as much about preventing people from getting in the system than getting them out after the fact. Chemical dependency is often a catalyst for law enforcement contact; and the opioid epidemic in America is reaching unparalleled heights. Obama writes “[e]ach year, more Americans die from drug overdoses than from traffic accidents, and more than three out of five of these deaths involve an opioid.”[9]

Obama’s commentary on criminal justice reform is comprehensive. He touches on the major disparity in which minority males find themselves in the system.[10] He discusses the amount of financial strain the system can place on individuals, which can them into a cycle of poverty or keep those already in poverty there.[11] And, he expresses his utmost respect for the overwhelming majority of police officers. He calls them the “heroic backbone of our communities.”[12] To assist in community relations with officers, he suggests transparency in the process to help gain and keep the public’s trust.

Presidents can spend their final days doing virtually anything they want. For Obama to write a law review article on criminal justice reform is a win for all criminal justice scholars. His efforts towards reform sets a high bar for anyone who is serious about tackling reform in the future.

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is admitted to practice law in federal and state court. He was named a Rising Star by Super Lawyers; and was named a Top 40 Under 40 trial lawyer by the National Trial Lawyers Organization for the past three years. Criminal Defense Lawyers St. Paul MN; Federal Drug Crimes Lawyer Minnesota; and St. Paul MN Criminal Defense Attorney. We blogged extensively about sentencing reform at the state and federal level.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr.

[2] Barack Obama, The President’s Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform, 130 Harv. L. Rev. 811 (2017).

[3] Id. at 813.

[4] Id. at 826.

[5] Id. at 822.

[6] Id. at 816.

[7] Id. at 815.

[8] Id. at 849.

[9] Id. at 858.

[10] “A large body of research finds that, for similar offenses, members of the African American and Hispanic communities are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, and sentenced to harsher penalties.” And, “one in four African American men outside the correctional system now has a felony record.” Id. at 820.

[11] “We should all be able to agree that the justice system should never be used as a source of revenue. Even in a time of budget shortages, there is simply no excuse for the proliferation of “user fees” that charge defendants — innocent or guilty — for everything from paperwork to legal representation, consigning those who cannot afford to pay to a cycle of debt, incarceration, and prolonged poverty.” Id. at 844.

[12] Id. at 840.

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