President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)

President Barack Obama has taken to the pages of the Harvard Law Review — which he edited as a student — to defend his record of criminal justice reform.

In an article published Thursday, titled “The President’s Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform,” Obama touted his efforts to make the criminal justice system more fair and effective, from the record number of clemency petitions he granted to expanded mentoring of young minority men. He also made the case that major reform is still needed and that the president can play a leading role in driving those changes.

“How we treat citizens who make mistakes (even serious mistakes), pay their debt to society, and deserve a second chance reflects who we are as a people and reveals a lot about our character and commitment to founding principles,” the article reads.

It’s the first time a sitting president has ever published an article in the prestigious journal, according to the school. But it was, perhaps, a natural fit for the outgoing president. He served as the president of the law review during the 1990-91 academic year, when he was a third-year law student.

Editing the leader of the free world was a particular thrill for the law review staff, according to current Law Review president Michael Zuckerman.

“For our team, the president’s piece provided an editing experience we will never forget,” he said on a press call arranged by the White House. “We put all our pieces through a rigorous editing process, and this piece was no exception, just on a compressed timeline given the president’s schedule.”

Zuckerman said that the law review staffers came up with the idea of having the president write about criminal justice reform — one of his signature issues — and that Harvard Law Dean Martha Minow, who announced on Tuesday that she will step down at the end of the academic year, reached out to the president to see if he was interested. Zuckerman told Harvard Magazine that the invitation was a “huge long shot” that panned out.

Obama’s article argues that the country cannot afford to spend $80 billion annually on incarcerating those with criminal records. “There is a growing consensus across the U.S. political spectrum that the extent of incarceration in the United States is not just not unnecessary but unsustainable,” it reads.

Police body cameras, better forensic science and identification of wrongful convictions, improved response to opioid addiction, sentencing reform, and a reduction in gun violence are a few of the steps that remain to be taken, the article argues.

“There is so much work to be done,” Obama wrote. “Yet I remain hopeful that together, we are moving in the right direction. Crime rates remain 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.”