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February 24, 2017
Interesting commentary on Prez Obama's Harvard Law Review article and his criminal justice legacy
As noted in this prior post, last month the Harvard Law Review published this lengthy article authored by Barack Obama titled "The President’s Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform." Today I saw at the interesting new site Carceral Complex this pair of follow-up commentaries:
President Obama’s Criminal Justice Legacy: What Went Wrong by Dustin Palmer
The themes of the potent and extended first piece by Dustin Palmer are summarized toward its conclusion:
Law reviews are an excellent place for professorial musings, but the weight of the law (and its failures) is borne by the people. After combing through the legalese, it is important to evaluate actions, not words. Obama’s rhetoric fits comfortably within the narrative of what supporters might have hoped would happen when a young former community organizer and constitutional law professor was elected president. The article itself, and its length, surely attempts to function as a “final word” on his justice reform efforts. Anecdotes about taking clemency participants to lunch or visiting a federal prison paint images of the compassionate, hopeful campaigner.
His actual record – on fundamental, defining aspects of the justice system – is much to the contrary. Failures to reform the War on Drugs, immigration abuse, police militarization, civil asset forfeiture, and the surveillance state left the criminal justice system not “smarter, fairer, and more effective” but undeniably worse. They are a national tragedy, and this failure will define his legacy.
The second shorter piece by Brett Diehl is somewhat less harsh, but not really less damning:
One is left with a sense that the HLR article may represent more of an attempt to construct an individual legacy than to empower actual reform. It was clear by January 2017 that many of the gains in rethinking criminal justice policy of the previous eight years would be rolled back under Trump and his Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. Yet Obama’s piece ends, like most of his speeches, with an optimistic declaration that, “I remain hopeful that together, we are moving in the right direction.” Ever an optimist, not once does he mention the incoming administration.
Yes, Obama’s administration made important gains in specific geographic and policy areas. But overall, it failed to shift the paradigm around criminal justice in our nation. In writing to the audience of the HLR, this failure was perpetuated. While it may reach the occasional lay reader, the piece’s formatting, length, and density surely scared off many potential readers (myself included). In this, Obama’s presidency proves to be more words over actions: rhetorical power, fit for us to remember fondly, without bold progress.
February 24, 2017 at 02:59 PM | Permalink
The ivory tower folks take Obama to task. The first writes, "His actual record – on fundamental, defining aspects of the justice system – is much to the contrary. Failures to reform the War on Drugs, immigration abuse, police militarization, civil asset forfeiture, and the surveillance state left the criminal justice system not “smarter, fairer, and more effective” but undeniably worse. They are a national tragedy, and this failure will define his legacy."
Plenty to fault Obama for, but not for failing to advance this agenda. Do the authors believe that Republicans would have gone along with any of the this? Give me a break
Posted by: Dave from Texas | Feb 24, 2017 7:13:04 PM
He could have done more by executive order/fiat, which he certainly was not shy about using. There was (and still is) Republican/bipartisan sentencing reform legislation pending that he could have exerted more leadership on, but he squandered that ability with the ACA disaster, among other things.
Overall, I have this impression that Obama was more about being "right," or on the right side of issues as he and his constituency saw them, than actually getting much done.
Posted by: Fat Bastard | Feb 24, 2017 7:40:31 PM
"the ACA disaster"
Not clear by actual facts, including voluntary (after SCOTUS made it so) expansion of Medicaid in many red states. Actual health experts have looked at things and shown how things improved in various respects. Even now, with Republicans in control of both the White House and Congress, how much this "disaster" will be ended in unclear. Because it isn't one tbh, putting aside how popular chunks are.
I'm unsure what great acts he was supposed to do to help pass stuff in the REPUBLICAN Congress. If anything, given partisanship these days, the REPUBLICAN Congress would find the whole thing tainted if OBAMA of all people was for it.
The second thumbnail summary notes "Obama’s administration made important gains in specific geographic and policy areas" but "failed to shift the paradigm around criminal justice in our nation." Fine. While helping to pass health insurance after decades of it not occurring, significantly moving the line in GLTB issues, helping move the courts (thanks in part to change in the filibuster rules), dealing with grave economic issues in the beginning of his administration etc. AND dealing with a level of Republican obstructionism of historical nature, yes, on crime he didn't "shift the paradigm" from decades of tough on crime rhetoric.
But, EVEN THERE, some improvements (cited in his piece) were made.
Posted by: Joe | Feb 24, 2017 8:05:35 PM
I would note that as with economic issues and his education policy (which got some strong pushback from the left), Obama's efforts here underlines his overall centrism. It would be grand if he did more, and it's something this blog would be particularly be concerned about, but especially with so many things on his plate, Obama was willing to be moderate here. The 'fiat' is somewhat exaggerated, especially outside of military issues and trying to apply PPACA in the face of Republican intransigence (fine) btw.
Posted by: Joe | Feb 24, 2017 8:10:51 PM
He could have exerted more leadership to accomplish Criminal Justice Reform. Sometimes it felt like it was a photo-op rather than an initiative for reform.
The lack of co-operation by Congress became a mantra for everything. There was some very solid support for sentencing reform from republicans in both houses that seemed to be treated casually. Sentencing reform had much more bi-partisan support than the ACA, yet it was left to languish.
Posted by: beth | Feb 24, 2017 10:06:00 PM
Obama had other priorities, namely to crush our economy with big government quack regulation.
Posted by: David Behar | Feb 24, 2017 10:29:50 PM
"Failures to reform the War on Drugs, immigration abuse, police militarization, civil asset forfeiture, and the surveillance state left the criminal justice system not “smarter, fairer, and more effective” but undeniably worse. They are a national tragedy, and this failure will define his legacy."
I agree. Hope we hold the current president to the same standard of reform, with the same frequency of posts about his failure, in the same biting tones.
Posted by: Paul | Feb 25, 2017 11:06:37 AM
Paul, to paraphrase another commentator, don't expect anything from the birther-in-chief, groper-in-chief, conman-in-chief.
Posted by: anon14 | Feb 27, 2017 12:06:58 PM
Obama is 100% responsible for this murder. He should lose his immunity, and be sued for his carelessness.
Posted by: David Behar | Mar 1, 2017 7:19:09 AM