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As a state legislator in Illinois, I worked with law enforcement and civil rights leaders to push for reduced sentences, videotaped police interrogations, and other reforms, including legislation in favor of second chances and against racial profiling. J OHN K.


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As a candidate for President, I called for addressing unwarranted disparities in criminal sentencing, emphasized the harms of profiling, and set out new initiatives to help the formerly incarcerated earn second chances. Throughout my time in office, using an array of tools and avenues, I have pushed for reforms that make the criminal justice system smarter, fairer, and more effective at keeping our communities safe. I have tried to bring that case directly to the American people in a number of unprecedented ways. See, e.


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  • As the first sitting President to go inside a federal prison, I heard directly from prisoners and corrections officers. I consoled the families of fallen police officers and the families of children killed by gun violence. I met with men and women battling drug abuse, rehab coaches, and those working on new solutions for treatment.

    See , e. I have sought to reinvigorate the use of the clemency power, commuting more federal sentences than my eleven predecessors combined. And I signed sentencing reform legislation and met with members of Congress from both parties who share my belief that criminal justice reform is a priority. P OST Dec. In addition to signing the Fair Sentencing Act of , Pub. At the same time, I also made a point of emphasizing the importance of maintaining a strong justice system and underscored how that system depends on public servants who devote their lives to promoting the rule of law and ensuring public safety.

    Instead, we have public servants — police officers. Criminal justice is a complex system, administered at all levels of government and shaped by a range of actors. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of so many in my Administration, the bipartisan push for reform from federal, state, and local officials, and the work of so many committed citizens outside government, America has made important strides.

    We have reduced overlong sentences for offenders and removed barriers for those with criminal records. We have made progress in helping people, especially young people, avoid getting entangled in the justice system in the first place. This Commentary talks about those achievements — and the tools Presidents can use to effect meaningful change throughout the system.

    And it emphasizes the continuing historic opportunity to make further progress.

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    Part I details the current criminal justice landscape and emphasizes the urgent need for reform. It would be a tragic mistake to treat criminal justice reform as an agenda limited to certain communities. All Americans have an interest in living in safe and vibrant neighborhoods, in raising their children in a country of equal treatment and second chances, and in entrusting their liberty to a justice system that remains true to our highest ideals. Peter Wagner, Jails Matter. But Who Is Listening? In addition, we cannot deny the legacy of racism that continues to drive inequality in how the justice system is experienced by so many Americans.

    Part II shows how the President can drive significant reform at the federal level. Working with Congress, my Administration helped secure bipartisan sentencing reform legislation reducing the crack-to-powder-cocaine disparity. And through the presidential pardon power, I have commuted the sentences of more than prisoners. Even though there are important structural and prudential constraints on how the President can directly influence criminal enforcement, these changes illustrate that presidential administrations can and do shape the direction of the federal criminal justice system in lasting and profound ways.

    Part III details the approaches that Presidents can take to promote change at the state and local level, recognizing that the state and local justice systems tend to have a far broader and more pervasive impact on the lives of most Americans than does the federal justice system. Part IV highlights some of the work that remains, focusing on reforms that are supported by broad consensus and could be completed in the near term.

    These include passing bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation in Congress, adopting commonsense measures to keep firearms out of the hands of those who are a threat to others or themselves, finding better ways to address the tragic opioid epidemic in this country, implementing critical reforms to forensic science, improving criminal justice data, and using technology to enhance trust in and the effectiveness of law enforcement.

    In , there were less than half a million inmates in U. Today, that figure stands at an estimated 2.

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    Many people who commit crimes deserve punishment, and many belong behind bars. But too many, especially nonviolent drug offenders, serve unnecessarily long sentences. We keep more people behind bars than the top thirty-five European countries combined, and our rate of incarceration dwarfs not only other Western allies but also countries like Russia and Iran. Data obtained from Inst. This ranking excludes territories and countries with populations of less than , There is a growing consensus across the U. And it is not making our communities safer.

    See Sally Q. This comes with significant public safety consequences because the growing [Bureau of Prisons BOP ] budget is crowding out everything else we do at the department. Yates, supra note If one includes the cost of jail and prison at the state and local level, the total U. Total expenditures on incarceration, moreover, only begin to capture the true costs of our flawed approach to criminal justice. An estimated seventy million Americans — roughly a third of the adult population — have some type of criminal record, which can trigger a whole host of stigmas and restrictions, including barriers to employment, voting, education, housing, and public benefits.

    Wagner, supra note And in too many communities — especially communities of color and those struggling with poverty and addiction — the justice system has touched almost every family. The costs of maintaining this system are nothing short of breathtaking.


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    We sacrifice billions of taxpayer dollars and waste untold human capital on a system that shuffles too many young people into a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails. And even as violent crime has plummeted over the past two decades, the evidence indicates that our massive levels of incarceration have not made us safer. How we got to this point is a complicated story. The policies of the s and s occurred against a backdrop of criminal activity that was ravaging our communities, especially our poor neighborhoods and communities of color. The FBI calculates that the rate of violent crime was See FBI, U.

    The push in that period for stricter laws, longer sentences, and more vigilant policing was not limited to one party or one community.

    Republicans embraced the strategy first, but Democrats quickly followed. Unfortunately, the impact of those policies has been anything but evenly distributed. If we are to chart honestly the path for criminal justice reform, we must confront the role of race and bias in shaping the policies that led us to this point. For example, studies have suggested no statistically significant difference in the rate of current drug use across races and ethnicities though the arrest and conviction rate for African Americans for drug crimes is significantly higher. See U. It was no accident that the setting for my most expansive public address on this topic was the NAACP.

    Obama, supra note 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. E CON.

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    Rates of parental incarceration are two to seven times higher for African American and Hispanic children. Over the past thirty years, the share of African American adults with a past felony conviction — and who have paid their debt to society — has more than tripled, and one in four African American men outside the correctional system now has a felony record. See Sarah K.

    Shannon et al. This number is in addition to the one in twenty African American men under correctional supervision. Today, however, much of that opposition has receded, replaced by broad agreement that policies put in place in that era are not a good match for the challenges of today. By reducing sentences and reinvesting some of the savings in other public safety initiatives — especially programs that actually address substance abuse and support for those with mental illness — these states have improved outcomes, enhanced trust, and thus ultimately made better use of taxpayer dollars.

    Alabama has had a similar experience. The goal of JRI is to generate state savings that can be reinvested in evidence-based strategies that will increase public safety while holding offenders accountable for crimes. For some people, the problems described in this Part will sound familiar. As President, I felt a unique responsibility to highlight the compelling economic and policy arguments for justice reform as well as the human toll of a failing system. Through my own actions and the policies of my Administration, I supported evidence-based solutions to these longstanding problems.

    A number of Republicans have been vocal and sincere advocates for reform efforts even as they were otherwise frequent critics of my Administration. There are also a host of Left-Right coalitions in this space.

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