WASHINGTON — With 15 days left in office, President Barack Obama urged future presidents to continue building on his administration’s efforts to reform the criminal justice system in an article published in the Harvard Law Review on Thursday.
“Presidencies exert substantial influence over the direction of the U.S. criminal justice system,” Obama writes in the dense, 56-page piece. “How we treat citizens who make mistakes, pay their debt to society, and deserve to earn a second chance reflects who we are as a people.”
It seems unlikely that his call will be heeded by President-elect Donald Trump, who has called himself the “law and order candidate,” promised to be tough on crime, and expressed support for controversial policing tactics like stop-and-frisk.
In the piece published Thursday, the president also struck a personal note when writing about his efforts to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and shorten the prison time of non-violent drug offenders.
“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,” he writes, reflecting on his meetings with people he pardoned while in office who had been given a second chance and changed their lives.
Obama has used his constitutional clemency power to reduce the sentences of 1,176 people since he has been in office, according to the White House. That is more than the previous 11 presidents combined. About a third of them, 395 people, were serving life sentences.
On Dec. 19, Obama pardoned 78 people and shortened the sentences of 153 others convicted of federal crimes — the most individual clemencies ever granted in a single day by any president.
Trump has criticized Obama’s push for clemency, calling the people whose sentences the Obama administration has commuted “bad dudes.”
“These are people out walking the streets,” he said at a rally last summer about drug offenders who had their sentences shortened. “Sleep tight, folks.”
Terrence Cunningham, who heads the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said he was hopeful about working on these issues with the Trump administration.
“We … understand that Mr. Trump is very supportive of law enforcement,” he said on a call with reporters on Wednesday discussing some of the recommendations in Obama’s piece. “We really look forward to working with incoming administration to make sure we continue to work on some of these.”
White House Counsel Neil Eggleston added that he hopes Obama’s piece “can educate the next generation of lawyers about these issues.”
Obama’s article also makes the case for data-driven solutions when it comes to cutting incarceration costs, which cost $80 billion annually. It highlights Miami-Dade County, where the county combined data across its criminal justice and healthcare systems, as “a good example of reform.”
The combined data showed that only 97 people with serious mental illnesses accounted for $13.7 million in services between 2010 and 2014, the piece states.
“These few dozen people spent more than 39,000 days not in treatment, but in jails, emergency rooms, state hospitals, or psychiatric facilities in their county,” he writes. “In search of a better way, and recognizing that this population frequently came into contact with law enforcement, the county provided key mental health deescalation training to their police officers and 911 dispatchers.”
Miami-Dade County has responded to almost 50,000 calls for help for people suffering from mental health issues in the last five years, but has only made 109 arrests and instead has directed more than 10,000 to services or “safely stabilized situations without arrest.”
As a result, the jail population fell, and Miami-Dade County was able to close an entire jail, saving nearly $12 million a year, the piece says.
Miami-Dade Judge Steven Leifman started the 11th Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project in 2000, to steer those with serious mental illness away from the criminal justice system. He also started a Crisis Intervention Team, which teaches law enforcement personnel to recognize signs of mental illness. Both programs have been widely hailed for reducing incarcerations, diverting people to treatment and saving taxpayer money.
In a call with reporters on Wednesday, Harvard Law Review president Michael Zuckerman said that the article, the first work of legal scholarship by a sitting president, “provided an editing experience we’ll never forget.” Obama is no stranger to the publication — in 1990 he became its first black editor.