Contents and conclusion

Now that I have given my initial impression on Obama’s law review article and decided how to read it, here are my takes on the first and last pages. Spoiler alert:  I’m underwhelmed.


The first section is “the urgent need for reform.” Urgent relative to what? The last 8 years? The last 16 years? 20?

The second section is “reforming the federal criminal justice system.” Here’s my idea:  publish regulations regarding charging and sentencing recommendation policies so that defendants can sue under the administrative procedures act when prosecutors go overboard. This is 100% within the authority of the executive branch. Prosecutors, not judges and legislators, are the ones responsible for deciding who goes to jail and for how long.

At subsection II.D, he suggests “re-invigorating clemency.” This is baloney. He will surely cite his unprecedented use of clemency, but being the best player on the single A team still doesn’t make you good. Obama’s use of clemency should be measured against the number of eligible people people who are still in prison rather than the number of people pardoned by other presidents. His shortcoming on this measure flies in the face of any authority he may have to speak on the president’s role in advancing criminal justice reform.

Section III is “tools and actions to drive state and local reforms.” The subsections are basically a bunch of talking points: advancing policing reform, eliminating the criminalization of poverty, etc. I’ll give the editorial staff credit for consistent parallelism, but essentially there are only 2 “tools and actions” that anyone can ever use to “drive reform”:

1. Win the PR battle
2. Win the legal battle

The president already has #2 in the bag because he controls the Department of Justice. Even a challengeable policy decision would take at least one term to resolve in court (see eg. DACA). At the start of his first term he also had #1 more or less locked up. So, the only action left to take is to get off his ass and draft a policy.

Section IV is “Work Unfinished.” I would have gone with “Unfinished Work” but I’m not a Harvard Law Review editor. This section had 7 subsections:

A. Pass sentencing reform legislation. This is Congress’s role, not the President’s. His job is to propose and sign the legislation.

B. Take commonsense steps to reduce gun violence. I’m always suspicious of common sense, especially when spelled as a single word and used to discuss actions that implicate constitutional rights.

C. Address opioid misuse and addiction as a public health issue. Ok,  fine I agree. But again, people have been agreeing this for decades.  Why couldn’t the president give orders addressing this issue within the past 8 years?

D. Strengthen forensic science and identify wrongful convictions. The first step towards strengthening forensic science is recognizing that most of it is a scam.  Obama’s DOJ could have done this and stopped using junk science in the court, but it didn’t.

E. Improve criminal justice data collection.  This is probably a euphemism for “keep track of the number of people shot by the police,” which you would think would be one of the easiest things in the world to do and something that the first black President would have accomplished on day 1 rather than adding it to a list of unfinished business for a fucking Harvard law review article.

D. Restore the right to vote of those who have paid their debt to society. Uh, yeah. No shit. That would be part of the oath that the President takes to uphold the constitution.

E. Make better use of technology to promote trust in law enforcement. Or, to put it more succinctly, make the police wear body cameras. Here’s the problem with that idea.


The first sentence might work in a speech, but it reads like “OMG! There’s, like, so much work to do!” The second sentence tells us that the President is “hopeful.” Hope was a campaign slogan, but not his thesis here. The third sentence mentions that crime is at its lowest rate in years… so maybe we don’t really need reform?  Maybe we’re already doing it right. The 4th sentence had no subject. And if the article is about the President’s role,  then the word “we” makes no sense.  Similarly,  the 5th and 6th sentences say nothing about the a presidents role in anything.

In summary, I’m glad I came up with a strategy for reading this thing because it’s informing my decision as to whether I should keep reading at all. Usually it takes a good 20 pages before realizing it’s a waste of time to keep reading. I’m only two pages in, and have a pretty good idea it will be a waste. Not giving up just yet, but definitely not inspired to keep going.


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