Changes in the United States Justice System

Criminal and Juvenile Justice

The President is leading the fight to build a fairer and more equitable criminal justice system. On August 3, 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduces the disparity in the amounts of powder cocaine and crack cocaine required to trigger certain penalties in the federal system, including imposition of mandatory minimum sentences.

The President continues to support funding for drug courts, which give first-time, non-violent offenders a chance to serve their sentence, if appropriate, in drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than prison terms in changing behavior.

In 2012, the White House convened an interagency working group focused on Children of Incarcerated Parents (COIP), to evaluate the federal programs and policies that impact the now more than 2.7 million children who have a parent in prison.  In June of 2013, the working group partnered with Sesame Street, to honor Champions of Change who are helping scores of children and their families by minimizing the potential negative impacts of having a parent who is incarcerated and announced a number of new Federal programs, including a web portal.

In June 2014, The White House released a fact sheet announcing a package of administrative actions and hosted a day-long event focused on expanding employment opportunities for individuals previously involved with the criminal justice system. The program, co-hosted with the Council of State Governments, included aroundtable moderated by Labor Secretary Tom Perez with business executives to discuss ways government can support private sector efforts to recruit and hire individuals with a criminal record.

Attorney General Eric Holder, along with other federal officials and best-selling author Piper Kerman (Orange is the New Black), honored sixteen Champions of Change doing extraordinary work to facilitate employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Part of addressing the criminal justice system means fostering strong, collaborative relationships between local police and the communities they protect. Trust between law enforcement agencies and the people they protect and serve is essential to the stability of our communities, the integrity of our criminal justice system, and the safe and effective delivery of policing services. In December 2014, President Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing to identify best practices and make recommendations. In March 2015, the Task Force released their interim report. In March 2015, the White House also hosted a two-day long convening on the use of body-worn cameras in law-enforcement. The Administration supports the use of body-worn and vehicular cameras, but recognizes that there are issues with these types of cameras that we need to work together to solve.

Access to Justice

Combatting youth violence is a White House priority. In 2009, President Obama directed the Justice Department to launch the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, which brings together a network of communities and federal agencies to reduce youth violence and gang activity, share information, build local capacity and improve public safety. The Forum has expanded beyond its six original cities to a total of 15.

In 2010, the Administration launched the Defending Childhood Initiative to leverage federal resources to prevent, address and reduce the harmful impact of childhood exposure to violence.

In 2011, the Administration established the Supportive School Discipline Initiative to address the school-to-prison pipeline. In April 2012, the White House Champions of Change Program honored twelve leaders working to prevent youth violence in their communities.

As a result, the Departments of Education and Justice released guidance to schools on how to implement non-discriminatory school discipline policies. In 2014, the Council of State Governments released a multi-stakeholder report, funded by the Departments of Justice and Education, providing further recommendations to dismantle the pipeline.

Human Trafficking

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To strengthen the U.S. Government’s existing zero-tolerance policy on human trafficking in government contracting, the President issued an Executive Order that outlines prohibitions on trafficking-related activities that will apply to all federal contractors and subcontractors, requires compliance measures for large overseas contracts and subcontracts, and provides federal agencies with additional tools to foster compliance.

In January 2014, the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Human Trafficking in Persons released the first-ever Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States. The plan outlines a five-year path for increased coordination, collaboration, and capacity across the federal government and in partnership with other governmental and nongovernmental entities at all levels.

In July 2014, the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center completed the first-ever domestic human trafficking assessment to track trends within the United States to help law enforcement, policymakers and other federal stakeholders improve efforts to prevent and combat trafficking.

The President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships has focused its efforts on galvanizing the faith-based community to combat human trafficking, raise awareness and provide services. The Advisory Council continues to implement the ten recommendations to the President to strengthen the partnerships.

Strengthening Protection Against Discrimination

Equal Pay

The first piece of legislation President Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which empowers women to recover wages lost to discrimination by extending the time period in which an employee can file a claim. The President continues to advocate for passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, common sense legislation that would give women additional tools to fight pay discrimination. And President Obama convened aNational Equal Pay Task Force to ensure that existing equal pay laws are fully enforced. The Task Force has helped women recover millions in lost wages, built collaborative training programs that educate employees about their rights and inform employers of their obligations, and facilitated an unprecedented level of inter-agency coordination to improve enforcement of equal pay laws.

In April 2014, the President signed two executive actions strengthening equal pay laws: anExecutive Order prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against employees who choose to discuss their compensation and a Presidential Memorandum instructing the Secretary of Labor to establish new regulations requiring federal contractors to submit summary data on compensation paid to their employees, including data by sex and race. The Department of Labor will use the data to encourage compliance with equal pay laws and to target enforcement more effectively.

States and Local Leaders Join the Push for Free Community College

Since the President’s call to action, state and local elected officials have taken action to expand free community college programs across the country.

Since the beginning of this Administration, President Obama has vowed to make working families a priority and create ladders of opportunity, including an affordable education.

Community colleges offer not only a critical opportunity to earn a college degree, but serve as a prerequisite to meeting the demands of today’s competitive global economy. Serving over 7 million students, America’s more than 1,100 community colleges make up the backbone of our nation’s postsecondary education and training system. During his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama unveiled the America’s College Promise, a proposal to make two years of community college free for responsible students. In his announcement, the President laid out a vision for free community college that can be achieved through shared responsibility from states, schools, employers, non-profits, students, and families.

At least 27 new free community college programs have launched in states, local communities, and individual community colleges since the President’s 2015 State of the Union address. Collectively, these new programs add over $70 million in new public and private investments to serve nearly 40,000 students at community colleges. Seventeen other states have introduced legislation to make community college free nation-wide.

States and communities are demonstrating that there is a range of thoughtful and effective ways to design tuition-free programs customized to local and state skills needs, funding opportunities, and shared community goals. This progress makes it clear that providing responsible students with a fair shot at attending a community college is a bipartisan issue – from Woodlands, TX to Los Angeles, CA – and that leaders from both sides of the aisle are paving the way for progress.

Here’s a look at what leaders from across the country are saying about their work to provide free community college for responsible students:


“By creating an endowment that guarantees free community college in perpetuity regardless of income or academic success, kindergarteners and their parents know that an opportunity for a better education and a better life is their destiny, and they can begin preparing themselves for it.  The Tennessee Promise isn’t just a college access program, it fundamentally changes our states culture and what we can hope for and expect for ourselves and our children.”

Commissioner Randy Boyd



“I’ve received countless phone calls and letters from parents who’ve shared they had to tell their child they simply couldn’t afford college; it’s a heartbreaking conversation that no family should be forced to have. At a time when so many jobs require a college degree to even be considered, making higher education affordable and accessible to every student who earns admission is not just some fantasy – it’s essential to our families and our economy.”  

Assemblyman James Skoufis



“A year of community college is a lot cheaper than a lifetime of food stamps.”

Senator Mark Hass



“The Washington Promise is about giving Washingtonians access to the tools they need to fulfill their own potential. Access to two tuition free years of community or technical college will bridge the gap between need and skill in the workforce, build on already successful programs such as Washington’s College Bound Scholarship and create attainable rungs in the ladder of upward mobility for our young people looking to advance on a career path.”

Senator David Frockt


“Opening the door to free community college is a proven way to boost high school graduation rates and provide families with a ladder to improved careers and security.”

Representative Gerry Pollet



“The jobs of the 21st will require more than a high school diploma. Many family supporting jobs can be obtained through degrees from two-year community colleges. Americans should be able to achieve a middle class life without being buried under a mountain of student loan debt.”

Representative Cory Mason



“Universal access to higher education for Americans will provide a true way for us to improve our country. Free tuition for community college in America is a necessary first step that can help us to defeat chronic cycles of poverty, and in many cases defeat hopelessness, for vast numbers of our people. I’m honored to be a part of this movement with the President.”

Senator Josh Green

President Obama Has Now Commuted the Sentences of 248 Individuals


Underscoring his commitment to reforming our criminal justice system, President Obama will meet with past commutation recipients to discuss the reentry process.

Today, the President announced 61 new grants of commutation to individuals serving years in prison under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws. More than one-third of them were serving life sentences. To date, the President has now commuted the sentences of 248 individuals– more than the previous six Presidents combined. And, in total, he has commuted 92 life sentences.

President Obama has commuted the sentences of more men and women than the past six presidents combined.

Underscoring his commitment not just to clemency, but to helping those who earn their freedom make the most of their second chance, the President will meet today with commutation recipients from both his Administration and the previous administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. During the meeting, the commutation recipients will discuss their firsthand experiences with the reentry process and ways that the process can be strengthened to give every individual the resources he or she needs to transition from prison and lead a fulfilling, productive life.

President Barack Obama hugs Kemba Smith during a greet with formerly incarcerated individuals
President Barack Obama hugs Kemba Smith during a greet with formerly incarcerated individuals who have received commutations, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, March 30, 2016. Following that meeting the President took the group to lunch at a local restaurant. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama meets for lunch with formerly incarcerated individuals
President Barack Obama meets for lunch with formerly incarcerated individuals who have received commutations, at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., March 30, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Watch President Obama drop by a meeting with past clemency recipients.

Building on this conversation, tomorrow the White House will host a briefing titled Life After Clemency with advocates, academics, and Administration officials to discuss and share ideas on the President’s clemency initiative and ways to improve paths to reentry. In addition to officials from the White House and the Department of Justice, experts, academics, and commutation recipients will share their expertise and insights on returning to society after years behind bars. To watch the briefing live, tune in tomorrow, Thursday, March 31, at 2:00 PM EDT

Throughout the remainder of his time in office, the President is committed to continuing to issue more grants of clemency as well as to strengthening rehabilitation programs. As he wrote in a letter to the 61 individuals receiving clemency today:

“The power to grant pardons and commutations… embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws.”


And, he cautioned those receiving clemency that what they do with this unexpected opportunity reflects not only on each individual person, but also on all those still behind bars who are seeking that same shot at a new life.

Despite the progress we have made, it is important to remember that clemency is nearly always a tool of last resort that can help specific individuals, but does nothing to make our criminal justice system on the whole more fair and just. Clemency of individual cases alone cannot fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies. So while we continue to work to resolve as many clemency applications as possible – and make no mistake, we are working hard at this – only broader criminal justice reform can truly bring justice to the many thousands of people behind bars serving unduly harsh and outdated sentences.

Fortunately, we are at a unique moment in history where such reform is possible. For the first time in a quarter century, Americans across the board acknowledge that the criminal justice system is broken and needs to change. This is no longer a partisan issue: Republicans and Democrats agree that many sentencing laws are outdated and unnecessarily harsh. We are continuing to work in bipartisan fashion to secure those much-needed, long-overdue reforms in Congress so that thousands more deserving individuals may benefit from the second-chance that these individuals earned today.

Neil Eggleston is White House Counsel to the President