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This Week On The Call In: Criminal Justice Reform


And this is The Call-In. Today we're talking about drug crimes and criminal justice reform. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a major change in policy this month.


JEFF SESSIONS: Going forward, I have empowered our prosecutors to charge and pursue the most serious offense, as I believe the law requires.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sessions instructed federal prosecutors to impose the most severe charges for drug offenders.


SESSIONS: We are returning to the enforcement of the laws as passed by Congress, plain and simple. If you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way. We will not be willfully blind to your misconduct.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's a reversal of the Obama administration's focus on leniency in nonviolent drug cases. We asked you to call in with your questions.

GRETCHEN ZUIDERVEEN: Hello, my name is Gretchen Zuiderveen (ph).

JOHN ASHMORE: Hey, my name is John Ashmore.

RACHEL BEAR: Rachel Bear (ph) calling from Naperville, Ill.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm from Longmont, Colo.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I think that the sentencing trends are going to be unbalanced towards blacks.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We have a lot of people in prison and families broken up for nonviolent crimes or only crimes against themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: And I feel this is a step backwards.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: I just wanted to give my two cents.



UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Thank you so much, bye-bye.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We asked NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson to help us answer your questions. She joins us now.

Thanks for being here.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: My pleasure, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is this guidance, or is this something that they actually have to do?

JOHNSON: This is a directive. It's something they have to do. Prosecutors can seek exceptions, but they need to get approval for that from a U.S. attorney or an assistant attorney general here in Washington. And that's a pretty big step to go through in your run-of-the-mill drug case.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, we talked to Bill Otis. He's a former federal prosecutor and now adjunct professor at Georgetown University law school. And he supports Sessions' approach.

BILL OTIS: Murder rates in the 30 largest states increased by 13.2 percent in 2015 and an estimated 14 percent in 2016. Those were the last two years of the Obama administration, when there was a relaxation of the use of mandatory minimums. What these figures tell us is that under the Obama administration, we were headed in the wrong direction.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that Sessions' basic rationale?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Attorney General Sessions has said, since his time in the Senate where he served for 20 years, that in his view, drug crimes are by their nature violent offenses. And he feels the way to crack down on some of these crimes is to stiffen the penalties that people face when they are caught with drugs in their bags or on their persons.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Otis there talks about the crime figures under the Obama administration. What do we know about trends in crime rates and the role that mandatory minimums have played in shaping them?

JOHNSON: An important point of context here, Lulu - the Brennan Center for Justice, which tends to be a more left-leaning criminal justice think tank, points out that crime overall is near historic lows across the country. Even though violent crime has been creeping up in some cities around the country, there's no single explanation for that. You can't say, according to criminologists, that it's because of drugs or because the Obama administration was seeking fewer mandatory minimums. We just don't have that evidence in hand.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's hear from a listener. Here is Carrie Sharpe (ph) from Wake Forest, N.C.

CARRIE SHARPE: I am curious to know how a return to harsher sentences can be done given the copious amount of information that we have about what that does to communities, particularly communities of color, and how these low-level drug crimes that people are being incarcerated for are just leading to mass incarceration of the black community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should mention, we had a lot of people with this question. The data backs this up, right?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. No matter who you ask - and the Sentencing Commission, which is a federal body here in Washington that's bipartisan, has concluded there are big racial disparities in sentencing and punishment for drug crimes. African-American people are about four times as likely as white people to be arrested for drug possession or drug-related crimes, even though black people and white people use drugs at the same rate. And their punishments are likely to be much greater. We have a lot more in this country in federal prisons - black men and Latino men serving long sentences for drug crimes than we do white men.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, Bill Otis, the former prosecutor, argues though that this policy - because it is federal - only targets the worst offenders. Here he is.

OTIS: The kind of drug defendants that you get in federal court are the big fish. People who use violence to collect their drug debts - that's the kind of fellow who shows up in federal court and who the attorney general believes is going to be affected, as they should be affected, by harsher mandatory minimums.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's the response to that argument?

JOHNSON: So I'm not a partisan in this fight...


JOHNSON: ...But I can't tell you what I see through years of reporting on these issues. And one of the things that I found in reporting on mandatory minimums for the last four or five years is that actually a lot of lower level offenders, people with no prior criminal record, were sentenced to very harsh prison terms in the '80s, '90s and 2000s.

Lulu, many of them were, like, girlfriends or wives of people who were trafficking drugs. They wound up sort of the last person holding the bag because they didn't have information to trade about a higher-level drug criminal or kingpin. They were sort of stuck.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the other things that people talk about when they discuss mandatory minimums is that it has contributed to the problem of overcrowded prisons. Is that a concern?

JOHNSON: Well, according to sentencing experts, a little less than half of the people in federal prison are there because they're serving drug crimes. And during the Obama years, the federal prison population went down. It was something like almost 220,000 inmates. It's now - I just checked this week - 188,000 people in federal prisons.

But take note of this - last year, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, under President Obama, had signaled a move to back away from private prisons. She wanted most, if not all, federal inmates to be housed in U.S. government facilities. Jeff Sessions, when he came on board under President Trump, has totally backed away from that approach and signaled that the U.S. government is going to continue to use private prisons. That signals to me and a lot of other people who follow criminal justice that we are going to have more people being punished and sent away. And the prison population is going to once again expand.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to talk about private prisons. A lot of people were wondering whether Sessions, because of that order, might be personally benefiting from sending people to prison. Let's listen.

JEFF PAYNE: Hello, my name is Jeff Payne (ph) from Portland, Ore. I'm wondering about Jeff Sessions' stock holdings in private prison companies and whether he is going to divest from all such investments before he pushes for these policies.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Carrie, you've looked into this a little bit. Is he benefiting personally?

JOHNSON: Here's what we know. I looked at his financial disclosures in connection with his bid to become attorney general this year. Jeff Sessions continues to have investments in a lot of mutual funds and some city and state bonds in the state of Alabama, where he's from. There's no direct investment in any private prison company. People like Jeff may be thinking about the notion that a couple of aides who had worked for Jeff Sessions in the Senate have left to go lobby for private prison companies. That is the case. And in fact, private prison stocks rose after the election last year. But I found no evidence that Jeff Sessions is directly invested in any private prisons.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Carrie Johnson, NPR's justice correspondent, thank you so much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lawmakers from both parties are pushing back against Sessions' orders. Republican Senator Rand Paul reintroduced legislation that would give federal judges more discretion to impose shorter sentences and make decisions on a case-by-case basis. A more lenient approach could have made a difference for Norman Brown. When he was only 22 years old, he was sent to prison for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, a nonviolent offense.

NORMAN BROWN: I was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences that ran concurrent because of the fact that I had two prior convictions, which were small amounts of cocaine.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some who may be listening to this would say you were doing something illegal. What kind of sentence do you think you should've received?

BROWN: Well, yes. And I would be in agreement with them because if you break the law, there are consequences with breaking the law. However, there is a thing called overkill. And I believe that a sentence of maybe five to seven years was enough for the amount of drugs that we were found guilty of. But being that it was crack cocaine, being that we ended up going to trial rather than copping out - is what we call it - or taking plea deals, I think that from that we ended up receiving more of a harsh sentence than we normally would have if we would have taken plea bargains.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you get involved in drugs?

BROWN: Well, when I was young, like any young teenager coming up, we saw people older than us driving in nice cars and living certain kinds of ways. And being a young teenager, those things inspired us. It inspired me. So I began to follow what I saw on TV and around the city of Washington, D.C., and that was how I was introduced into selling narcotics.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Obama commuted Brown's sentence in 2015 after he served 24 years in prison.

BROWN: Oh my - I couldn't believe it. I couldn't talk. To have three life sentences and to know, in four months, I'm capable of actually being free - I was speechless.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After so long in prison, what's it been like after your release?

BROWN: All new. As a matter of fact, on my way home when my sister and my family came to pick me up, I got carsick because I hadn't been in a vehicle in so long that to just be on the highway coming home made me seasick, like someone would be, I guess, on the water for their first time. So that was my first experience on my way to the halfway house.

And then when I got to the halfway house, my head was spinning to get back with my feet on the ground in the real world. I did not recognize Washington, D.C. I was quite nervous. I didn't know what to expect. I had a pretty nice homecoming that quick from people showering me with so many clothes and things that you need for the halfway house. And - so my experience has been - and it continues to be - a learning experience with learning how to travel, learning how to shop. I'm in a beautiful relationship. I have to learn how to do that again. So I'm just doing a lot of the basic things. Like today, when I was invited to NPR, I was doing lawn work and, you know, sitting out there by myself. And - I'm just doing all the basic things to enjoy being free again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did you want to share this story?

BROWN: Because I think it's very important for people to know how human we are - through all that we go through, all the mistakes that we make in life and going to jail and being incarcerated for a long period of time. And then when you come back out and you were able to keep your sanity because I've seen a lot of people that had less amount of time than I have had that have lost their minds in prison due to the fact that they just can't cope with it. And sometimes being and having and reaching some of these long, draconian sentences - injustice can breed insanity. And I think that it's very important that we understand that some of these mandatory minimum sentences are ridiculously too long, and they are actually doing more harm than good.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Norman Brown, thank you so much for joining us today.

BROWN: And thank you for having me. It was my pleasure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Next week on The Call-In, we're focusing on housing. What's the housing market like where you live? Is owning a home a reality for you, or can you only afford to rent? Were you affected by the housing crisis and now on the road to recovery or not? Is the real estate market too hot where you live? Call in at 202-216-9217 with your questions or experiences. Be sure to include your full name, contact info, where you're from and your story or question, and we may use it on the air. That number again - 202-216-9217.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro
Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.