President Obama’s latest message to Trump: Don’t stop criminal justice reform.

It’s unlikely that the next president will heed the call.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

With 15 days left in his second term and Republicans threatening to undo some his biggest political contributions, President Barack Obama is calling on president-elect Donald Trump to preserve at least one of his key achievements: criminal justice reform. In a new Harvard Law Review article published Thursday morning, Obama wrote in depth about the “urgent need for reform” within the system, from the point of entry onward.

Beginning his four-part submission with a history of mass incarceration in the U.S., Obama emphasized the “unsustainable” cost of housing prisoners, draconian — and racist — sentencing, and the ultimate failure of prisons and jails to enhance public safety. He also lamented the long-term, disastrous human impact of incarceration: the inability to access “employment, voting, education, housing, and public benefits” because of a criminal record.

According to Obama, it is imperative that the government reforms the front-end of the system, when people first come into contact with law enforcement. Specifically, the next administration can continue the dialogue between police and the communities they serve to build more trust, reframe addiction as a matter of public health rather than criminality, and sign bipartisan sentencing reform legislation to reduce the likelihood of languishing behind bars.

Trump can also offer second chances to people when they leave the system by supporting federal policies that smooth prisoners’ reentry — such as “ban the box” initiatives — and restore their right to vote. Fewer barriers to jobs, education, housing, and social services, will make it easier for former prisoners to turn their lives around, instead of ending back in the system and wasting taxpayers’ dollars.


“Crime remains near historic lows, prison populations are decreasing, taxpayer dollars are being better spent, and more Americans are landing on their feet and taking advantage of the second chances they’ve earned,” wrote Obama.

During his two terms, Obama did more to change the criminal justice system than any of his predecessors. He established the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, in response to national outcry over violence committed by law enforcement. His administration spearheaded sentencing reform to give low-level nonviolent offenders a fair shake. He also scaled back the use of inhumane restrictive housing, commuted a record number of prisoners, encouraged a partnership between government and the private sector to ban the box, and reinstated Pell grants to improve prisoners’ access to education.

“How we treat those who have made mistakes speaks to who we are as a society and is a statement about our values — about our dedication to fairness, equality, and justice, and about how to protect our families and communities from harm, heal after loss and trauma, and lift back up those among us who have earned a chance at redemption,” he wrote in the review. “Those privileged to serve as President and in senior roles in the executive branch have an obligation to use that influence to enhance the fairness and effectiveness of the justice system at all phases.”

But Trump ran on a tough on crime platform, and he’s made no indication that he’ll change his tune.

Unlike his democratic challengers, Trump didn’t outline a lengthy plan to advance criminal justice reform. He focused instead on empowering the police and said that law enforcement should be able “to go and counter-attack” their critics. He called for a national expansion of stop-and-frisk policies, incorrectly stating that “it worked incredibly well” in New York City; promised that the death penalty would be imposed on people who kill cops; continued his crusade against the Central Park Five; and pledged to detain more undocumented immigrants than his predecessor.


In November, Trump also tapped Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) — a supporter of the War on Drugs that fueled mass incarceration — to be the next attorney general.