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Justice Reform Advocates Urge Obama To Speed Action On Clemency

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, more than three dozen law professors are reaching out to the White House this week to sound an alarm. They want President Obama to pick up the pace in granting clemency so no deserving prisoner gets left behind. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: There's just seven months left to go in the Obama presidency. And advocates warn that time's running out on a White House promise to release nonviolent drug criminals who don't need to spend more time in prison. Law professor Mark Osler represents several inmates asking for mercy.

MARK OSLER: I sometimes say that I feel like the guy that is rowing a lifeboat. And you're glad you have a few people in the boat, but you're feeling this impending sense of panic about the people in the water.

JOHNSON: Osler says 12,000 inmate petitions for shorter prison sentences are in the pipeline at the Justice Department. So far, the president has granted 348 commutation requests. But the law professors say nearly five times as many, 1,500 people, can demonstrate they should be freed under the president's criteria.

Those guidelines apply to inmates who have spent at least 10 years behind bars for nonviolent drug crimes - small players, not kingpins - people who would've received less prison time if they were convicted of laws on the books today. Again, Mark Osler.

OSLER: If we take a rapist away from society and stop him from raping women, that is a good thing. If we take a very low-level crack dealer out of the society and imprison him for life, that's not solving any problem because it's a market. And you don't solve a market problem by sweeping up low-wage labor.

JOHNSON: By nature, political appointees at Justice and the White House are cautious, especially in an election year. But Osler says there's enough time to get the job done.

OSLER: In terms of doing a categorical approach and identifying these people and saying these are the most important cases, there is plenty of time to do that if the will is there.

JOHNSON: He says only personal intervention from President Obama could help get the clemency system working. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.