As Obama wraps up his presidency and we transition to our new leadership under Trump, U.S. citizens will note many possible changes. One area that may see significant upheaval in the upcoming months (and years) is criminal justice reform. Obama has focused the majority of his efforts on this area within the last year of his presidency. Though he’s pushing for reform even during his last days in office, he’s facing criticism from both liberals and conservatives. Here’s a look at what he’s done so far for criminal justice reform, what he may do in the upcoming weeks, and how this will affect the criminal justice system as we currently know it.
Obama’s most notable criminal justice reform happened in the past year. He’s granted an historic number of commutations to prisoners who were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, most of which were drug-related charges. Commutations are, in simplified terms, the forgiveness of part of a prison sentence. Throughout his presidency, Obama has granted commutations to over 1,000 drug offenders, of which 342 were previously life sentences. For those keeping track, he’s issued more commutations than the last 11 presidents combined and more within a single year than any other president in history.
In addition, Obama has issued executive orders that aim to reduce the number of prosecutions for federal drug offenders; eventually do away with private prisons; and remove solitary confinement, especially for juveniles.
While no one can say for sure what Obama will do next, there are several possibilities.
For one, it’s quite likely that he’ll continue his past efforts by granting clemency to more prisoners during his last days in office. However, some advocacy groups are asking him to take steps further by issuing “sweeping” commutations to nonviolent offenders, possibly without even reviewing individual clemency requests.
In addition, it’s possible that the president will strive to pass more legislation or issue executive orders that further his progress towards reducing sentences and punishments for drug offenders across the board.
While Obama has certainly taken the first steps towards reforming criminal justice laws, most of what he’s done so far can be reversed if Trump chooses. At this point, Trump hasn’t said much about his plans in this area, though he has been critical of Obama’s clemency program in the past and stated he wants more “law and order.” The future is incredibly unclear for criminal justice and could easily go either way at this point. Meanwhile, those who have pending clemency requests are left hanging in the balance.