President Barack Obama took to the Harvard Law Review to tout his administration’s reforms of the criminal justice system, in an article published Thursday.
It’s the second time he’s made history with the legal journal: He was its first black president as a law student in 1990. And now, Obama is the first sitting president to publish a work of “legal scholarship,” according to the law review’s current president.
However, the valedictory on criminal justice overhaul, an issue close to the president’s heart, is not his first article in an academic journal. This summer, Obama authored a summation of Obamacare — its accomplishments and his prescriptions for improving the health law — in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs. Just as Obama has embraced social media like Twitter and Facebook to speak directly to a specific audience, he appears to increasingly be addressing the academic experts who will assess his legacy on their own turf.
Thursday’s 56-page article was also intended to give the issue of criminal justice reform momentum after Obama leaves office, his chief legal adviser told reporters.
“It is my hope,” said White House Counsel Neil Eggleston on a conference call Wednesday, “that by publishing a piece of this scope in the Harvard Law Review, the president can educate the next generation of lawyers about these issues.”
The failure of that legislation was one of the top disappointments of Obama’s final year in office. However, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said this week that he wants torevive the bill.
“I continue to believe that a historic moment exists to embrace the bipartisan momentum on this issue. There is no growing crime wave,” Obama writes, adding that less taxpayer money spent on prisons means more for other priorities. “That kind of reform is good politics as well as good policy.”
Especially in the second half of his presidency — as the country seethed over fatal exchanges of gunfire between black men and police — Obama has pushed for changes to sentencing laws and, more broadly, an end to the “school-to-prison pipeline.” In the law review article, he highlighted his unprecedented use of clemency power to shorten mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders and his administration’s successful efforts to convince companies to help ex-cons, including an unusual alliance with the Koch brothers.
The article includes such unusual citations as a link to the website of Busboys and Poets, where Obama took several clemency recipients to lunch, along with more academic data on crime and policing. In it, Obama touts his efforts to drive to make criminal justice reform a front-burner issue,, including a historic visit to the El Reno federal prison in 2015. But he also acknowledges the role of social media, and explains why his silence often left both sides of the debate unsatisfied in a message that echoes his broader warnings about Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip commentary.
He continues, “Oftentimes, it is a viral YouTube video that leads the evening news, incites protests, and drives calls for reform. Like millions of others, I would watch these videos, but the office makes it difficult to comment the way a journalist or activist would without being accused of prejudging the facts or influencing the legal process.”
Obama listed several areas of unfinished business, including new gun laws, better ways to fight opioid addiction, the restoration of felons’ voting rights and improvements in forensic science. The piece made no mention of changing the legal status of marijuana or ending capital punishment, two areas where advocates on the left hoped to see Obama take a new stand.
Obama’s article marks the “first work of legal scholarship of a sitting president,” said Michael Zuckerman, the current president of the Harvard Law Review.
Zuckerman described “an editing experience that we’ll never forget” on the conference call with reporters Wednesday.
“We edited the piece in a couple of very quick turnarounds,” he said – during finals.