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Rethinking Punishment For Drug Offenders


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now we'd like to turn to a story about how views of crime and justice are changing when it comes to the nation's drug laws. In the 1980s and '90s during the crack epidemic, many low-level offenders received harsh sentences that kept thousands of people incarcerated sometimes for decades. But the Obama administration has been re-examining the wisdom of those sentences and is pushing to open up the clemency process for nonviolent drug offenders.

This week, the Justice Department will announce new criteria for pardons and commutations, a move that's intended to encourage thousands of people now incarcerated for drug crimes to apply for early release. We wanted to hear more about this, so we called NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Welcome. Thanks, Carrie, for joining us.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So do we know who or what is motivating this effort? I mean, activists have been complaining for years that too many people are locked up for just too long, especially people who are nonviolent offenders. But this has been kind of one of those slow-boil arguments that nobody seems to be paying attention to. Now somebody is. Do we know why?

JOHNSON: I think the message from those activists reached the ears of Barack Obama at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Michel. From all I've been able to glean from sources, this issue is personal to him in part because the drug laws are enforced in ways that disproportionately hurt minority defendants. And the notion that nonviolent offenders could be locked up for decades he thinks is a civil rights issue and a public safety issue. He thinks there are too many people in prison that don't pose a threat to public safety. And Attorney General Eric Holder agrees with him.

MARTIN: So what's going to be different now? What exactly is going to change?

JOHNSON: So what's going to happen is that there's going to be a process opened up to thousands of people currently behind bars who are behind bars without ties to gangs, without violent offenses in their backgrounds and for people with clean records in prison.

And those people will be invited or encouraged to apply for commutations or pardons, in essence, to get out of prison early. The Justice Department says that it expects many thousands of offenders will be eligible. But, you know, it may take a little while to figure out who makes the cut.

MARTIN: Does this solely affect people who are serving time on federal charges, or does this also affect people in state prisons who are serving time under state charges?

JOHNSON: Michel, this only affects the population of about 219,000 inmates in federal custody now. But it's important to note that many states have already pursued these kinds of reforms at the state level, including, Michel, states that we consider to be red - Republican governors, Republican legislatures. And that has in fact given this administration some political cover for making these reforms because in the past, many Democrats have been wary of being perceived as weak on crime.

MARTIN: How is the Justice Department getting out the word to - about this? I mean, I understand this is relatively new information, but how is this information being distributed?

JOHNSON: So the deputy attorney general, Jim Cole, the number two at the Justice Department, had a private meeting in February with advocates for prisoners and people who want to see sentencing reform.

That includes groups that are very familiar to you and your audience - Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the ACLU, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. And the Deputy Attorney General later this week is expected to announce some new guidelines for the Bureau of Prisons to let inmates know they may be eligible for these kinds of reforms. So they're slowly getting the word out, but it's going to take a little while to filter to those U.S. prisons all over the country.

MARTIN: You know, this may be a silly question. But, you know, you can have a policy change, but is there the administrative infrastructure to actually implement the change? I mean, there have been stories for years, including stories from the investigative group ProPublica, about how - and Inspector General's reports - saying that the pardon attorney's office is simply overwhelmed and isn't doing a very good job at processing the applications that are already before it. So what about that?

JOHNSON: That's a real fear of some of these advocates that, you know, there are not very many attorneys in the pardon office now who review these petitions. They get lots of petitions, and they're about to get thousands more. So what Eric Holder, the attorney general, has said is that he's going to create a special team of lawyers and move more lawyers into that office.

And those lawyers are going to have backgrounds not just, Michel, as prosecutors, but people that defended clients as well, which is important because it's a little odd to begin with to think about the people passing judgment on whether criminals can get out of prison early are those same people who prosecuted them in the first place. There's a bit of a mindset issue there.

MARTIN: You know, one other point, though, Carrie, is that President Obama, historically speaking, has actually been pretty stingy with pardons and commutations. He did eight of them last December.

He did another one earlier this month for a man who was actually serving more time as a result of a typo. So can we expect that he will move on these? I mean, this is a policy change of his administration, but his own sort of - when he's exercised his own discretion very sparingly here.

JOHNSON: I looked up the statistics before coming in, Michel. President Obama has granted 1 out of every 175 petitions for pardons and commutations. That is fewer than Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Clinton and both Presidents Bush - remarkable. So the tone at the top may be coming from the president. He wants to see these things. It remains to be seen whether his underlings are going to act.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. We only have about a minute left. Why do we think he's been so stingy with commutations and pardons? Do we have a theory about that? Is that that - what you cited at the beginning, Democrats - Democrats, particularly liberals, being fearful of appearing soft on crime and alienating their middle-class voters? Do we know? Do we have a theory?

JOHNSON: I think that's part of the issue. Remember that President Clinton in his waning days in office issued pardon for Marc Rich. And that became a political scandal and a federal investigation that ensnared among other people, our current attorney general, Eric Holder. So they're a little bit wary of the politics of these issues.

MARTIN: Carrie Johnson is NPR's justice correspondence. She was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Carrie Johnson, thanks so much for joining us.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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