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Obama Commutes 111 Prison Sentences; DOJ Working To Clear Backlog


President Obama granted early release to another batch of prisoners. One-hundred-eleven people are leaving federal custody. Most were serving time for nonviolent drug offenses, the kind of sentences the president and many others have said were too strict. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been covering this story. She's on the line. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's prompting the president to move on such a large scale right now?

JOHNSON: Two years ago, this White House and Justice Department announced a clemency initiative for drug criminals who had otherwise clean records in prison and who would be facing less time, Steve, if they were punished today because the sentencing policies have changed. And that's what yesterday's clemency grants are all about. On Obama's watch, over the last seven years, the number of commutations or early releases is 673. Six-hundred-seventy-three people - more than a third of them had been expecting to die in federal prisons.

INSKEEP: Which sounds like a lot. But tens of thousands of people have asked for clemency, right?

JOHNSON: Yeah, there's been a huge backlog. Advocates for prisoners have worried about whether the Justice Department will be able to sift through all of those requests. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told me all kinds of prisoners applied - not just the drug criminals the program was designed for, but also white-collar offenders, sex offenders, violent criminals. But Sally Yates made a bit of news in her talk with me yesterday. Here's what she said.

SALLY YATES: At our current pace, we are confident that we will be able to review and make a recommendation to the president on every single drug petition that we currently have.

JOHNSON: In other words, the Justice Department is promising it will review every drug-related request before the end of the administration.

INSKEEP: No more backlog then?

JOHNSON: Steve, not so fast. Thousands of other applications had piled up from white-collar offenders and violent criminals. But the Justice Department and advocates for these prisoners say their top commitment now is to the drug criminals, who should no longer be locked up in the first place. There's a lot of bureaucracy though. After DOJ reviews these petitions, then they go to the White House, and President Obama himself makes the final call. I talked yesterday with a lawyer, Mark Osler, who says by his count, 1,500 drug inmates should be on their way out the door. To date, the White House has paved the way to release fewer than half of them.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking about that. If the president personally has to sign off on this - I mean, they do have a process. They might give the president a memo with a box that says yes or no, release, don't release. But still, to personally review case after case after case, and there are tens of thousands that have been asked for, is the White House going to shorten a lot more sentences this year?

JOHNSON: You know, the White House says this is a priority for the president, who, after all, was the first to visit a federal prison. I talked with Neil Eggleston. He's the top lawyer for President Obama. And here's what Eggleston had to say about that.

NEIL EGGLESTON: We have a lot of months left in this administration. And I think there has been a pickup. And I think that you will continue to see grants on a regular basis now through January 20.

INSKEEP: Although, I guess we should remember this is effectively an executive action and not a fundamental change in criminal law, which is something that people have been talking about for quite some time. Could there be a wider push for criminal justice reform in Washington this year or in years to come?

JOHNSON: Well, Steve, this is going to be, in large part, up to the next president. And here's what the current key candidates have to say. Hillary Clinton has embraced the need to be smarter about crime and to prioritize the people who need to be in prison. She has also advanced some drug treatment programs, for instance, as opposed to incarceration. But Donald Trump has adopted a much more traditional law-and-order approach. And he's railed, Steve, against this White House for releasing drug criminals and other offenders. That's why so many people in this administration, the Obama administration, are really pressing Congress to act to change the laws for drug crimes. And as House Speaker Paul Ryan told you on this program earlier this year, he wants to do something. It's not clear the rest of Capitol Hill is going to be on board with the time left this year, though.

INSKEEP: Well, help me understand that, though. You mentioned there's a divide between the presidential candidates. But this is not entirely a partisan issue. You've got Paul Ryan effectively on the same side as the president of the United States. You've got a lot of Republicans and Democrats who would like to do something here.

JOHNSON: That's true. But there's a wing of the party, including some of Donald Trump's key supporters like Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, who have raised big questions about letting people out of prison. They point to some rise in violent crime and homicides in some major cities around the country, and they are warning that letting more people out could - out of prison - could attach violent crime rates. Most criminologists have some doubts about that at this point, Steve, and believe prison should be reserved for the worst of the worst. But that's a debate that's going to continue in Washington and around the country.

INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks as always.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.