Advocates Call On Washington To Fix The Criminal Justice System Already

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President Obama would like to see bipartisan legislation that would overhaul the criminal justice system. The idea has brought together an unusual coalition that includes the ACLU and Koch Industries.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

There are a lot of items on President Obama's wish list for his final months in office. Specifically, he says that he's...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: Really interested in the possibilities, the prospect of bipartisan legislation around the criminal justice system.

WERTHEIMER: The issue has brought together an unusual coalition, including the ACLU and Koch Industries. Now advocates are demanding Congress and the White House translate rhetoric into action. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: People who've been trying to overhaul the federal criminal justice system say time is running out.

CHRISTINE LEONARD: These next five weeks, I think, are really critical for us to see whether or not Washington is really ready to achieve meaningful reforms in the federal sentencing and prison system.

JOHNSON: Christine Leonard runs the Coalition for Public Safety. That's a strange bedfellows partnership of libertarians and evangelical conservatives who align with liberals on the need to...

LEONARD: Make sure that the punishment fits the crime and that we are scaling our resources appropriately towards the most serious offenders.

JOHNSON: It's not just the cost of housing more than 200,000 people in federal prisons - about $7 billion this year. But aside from the financial price tag, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates says there's also public confidence to consider.

SALLY YATES: When the public doesn't believe that our criminal justice system is designed to punish and deter but rather to warehouse and forget, that comes with a huge cost.

JOHNSON: Singer John Legend put it this way at the Oscars ceremony this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE 87TH ACADEMY AWARDS)

JOHN LEGEND: The struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world.

JOHNSON: Five years ago, law professor Michelle Alexander published a book she called "The New Jim Crow." Here she is talking about it on The Colbert Report.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, today we have a new system of racial and social control - a system of mass incarceration that operates in ways that are eerily reminiscent of a system we supposedly left behind thanks to the war on drugs and the get-tough movement.

JOHNSON: And that's where Congress and the White House come in. In Congress, bipartisan lawmakers introduce sprawling legislation to dial back on the get-tough movement. Their bill would reserve prison space for violent criminals and career offenders, and that's in the U.S. House. But advocates say they're paying more attention to the Senate. Negotiators there have been working quietly for weeks to reach a narrower deal - one that sources say would offer less risky inmates credits to get out of prison early. It may also put new limits on the number of people charged as drug leaders or kingpins - charges that carry long sentences. Not everyone is convinced about the need for change. A few longtime prosecutors say the current system is not broken, and they worry about a possible rise in crime if the wrong offenders get released. That's a point TV host Stephen Colbert made to the law professor Michelle Alexander.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: It would be "Mad Max" cannibal culture in the street if we did that.

ALEXANDER: No.

COLBERT: That's chaos.

JOHNSON: But the Justice Department says it's already been charging fewer drug defendants with crimes that carry long mandatory sentences for the past year. And since then, crime has not gone up, and those defendants are still pleading guilty at the same rates. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.