Obama makes justice reform pitch in journal he once edited

Obama grants clemency to 231
Obama grants clemency to 231

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Washington (CNN)Returning to the pages of the prestigious law journal he once edited, President Barack Obama sought to crystallize his efforts toward a fairer justice system in an article Thursday, offering recommendations to a successor who few are confident will uphold his efforts.

Obama's dense and scholarly piece in the Harvard Law Review, running almost 60 pages with extensive footnotes and citations, offers a summation of his work toward reforming the way Americans are sentenced and imprisoned. It also spells out prescriptions for future presidents, despite the tough-on-crime rhetoric that President-elect Donald Trump espoused on the campaign trail last year.
Obama is expected in the coming days to take further action in reducing sentences for non-violent drug offenders, part of a broader unilateral effort to ease harsh punishments. In his tenure, Obama has reduced the sentences of more than 1,000 non-violent drug offenders, far surpassing other recent presidents, who used their commutation powers more sparingly.
In his efforts, Obama has focused intently on reducing sentences for people convinced of crack-related crimes, which carry sentences that far exceed those for powdered cocaine. The disparity has overwhelmingly affected African-Americans.
"We cannot deny the legacy of racism that continues to drive inequality in how the justice system is experienced by so many Americans," the President wrote in the article Thursday.
Obama, who was elected as the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review in 1990, sought in his article to imbue his case with personal meaning, writing that his push toward eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and offering clemency to non-violent drug offenders was informed by his own history.
"This is an effort that has touched me personally, and not just because I could have been caught up in the system myself had I not gotten some breaks as a kid," Obama wrote in the law review, recalling meetings at the White House with recipients of his clemency grants who had turned their life around.
"By shifting the narrative to the way clemency can be used to correct injustices in the system -- and reminding people of the value of second chances -- I worked to reinvigorate the clemency power and to set a precedent that will make it easier for future presidents, governors and other public officials to use it for good," Obama wrote.
White House officials on Wednesday expressed confidence that growing bipartisan momentum for reform efforts will convince Trump and his attorney general nominee, Sen. Jeff Sessions, to adopt at least some of Obama's practices going forward.
A bill sponsored by the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, and the Democratic Whip, Dick Durbin, will be revived in the Congress that was sworn in this week. The measure, which would include altering mandatory minimum sentences and reform the prison system, has a wide array of backers.
"There is still very strong bipartisan support, both among a range of advocacy groups from civil rights organizations, to law enforcement, to the faith community, to the business community, and that momentum remains steadfast," said Valerie Jarrett, Obama's senior adviser, on Wednesday.
"I think the fact that there is so much momentum going on around the country and on both sides of the aisle, and in both chambers in Washington, gives us a reason to be optimistic," Jarrett said.
However, among activists who have pushed the President to utilize his clemency powers to reduce prison sentences, there was little optimism that Trump would continue apace with Obama's efforts. Trump ran on a "law and order" platform, though rarely addressed issues of clemency or sentencing on the campaign trail.
"I'm hopeful that he would consider continuing the clemency program or having an initiative of his own. There are some folks that I'd like to get to," said Cynthia Roseberry, project manager for Clemency Project 2014, which has helped federal inmates apply for commutations or pardons.
Roseberry, like other advocates for some type of sentencing reform, said it hasn't been clear from Trump's public statements what direction he'll take on the issue.
"I'm looking at various predictors to try and decide where he might go. He wants to make America safe again. We know based on data that locking up low-level offenders won't make America safe," said Jessica Jackson Sloan, the national director and co-founder of #cut50, a group committed to reducing the US prison population by half.
"I'm hopeful that we'll be surprised," Sloan said.
Obama's article in the law journal is the first work of high-level legal scholarship by a sitting president, according to the President of the Harvard Law Review Michael Zuckerman.
"We put all of our pieces through a rigorous editing process, and this piece was no exception, just on a compressed time line, given the President's schedule," Zuckerman said Wednesday. "We edited the piece in a couple of very quick turnarounds huddled over our computer screens on the eve of final exams this past December."