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Effort To Change System For Nonviolent Drug Criminals Hits Snag

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The bipartisan effort to overhaul the criminal justice system for nonviolent drug criminals has hit a speed bump. Some members of Congress are trying to tie those lighter punishments for drug defendants to a new bill that would make it harder to prosecute food, safety and business crimes. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The White House has made changing harsh and outdated drug laws one of its top priorities. But administration officials are warning that a recent plan adopted by the House Judiciary Committee threatens to make the justice system worse, not better. And that's because the new House plan requires prosecutors to prove guilt to a higher standard in many cases, and the Justice Department says that would create a massive amount of uncertainty and confusion.

SALLY YATES: It would end up meaning that there will be some criminals who would go free as a result because we simply would not be able to meet that standard of proof.

JOHNSON: Sally Yates is deputy U.S. attorney general. Yates says, by her analysis, the House plan could scuttle a wide variety of prosecutions, ranging from businesses that distribute contaminated food to gun crimes and bank frauds.

YATES: If this proposal were to pass, it would provide cover for top-level executives, which is, again, not something that we think is in the interest of the American people.

JOHNSON: But for supporters like Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte, the measure's a commonsense response to the huge number of criminal laws on the books.

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BOB GOODLATTE: This is a very carefully crafted bill. Its intent is to protect American citizens who did not know or have reason to know that they were violating federal law.

JOHNSON: Goodlatte's committee calls this overcriminalization and it's held a series of hearings on the issue. The idea of requiring prosecutors to prove a specific defendant intended to break the law gets a lot of support in theory. Vikrant Reddy is a senior fellow at the Charles Koch Institute, a nonprofit group that studies criminal justice.

VIKRANT REDDY: There's this old quote from the guy who is the head of Joseph Stalin's secret police. He said find me the man and I'll show you the crime because they had so many crimes in the books that you could get anybody on anything as long as you looked hard enough.

JOHNSON: But some lawyers say they don't have enough information about the new legislation. Jeffrey Robinson works at the American Civil Liberties Union, which takes no position on the bill.

JEFFREY ROBINSON: And our view is that the people who want this bill passed should make a list of the statutes that this bill would impact so that people can see what statues are we talking about.

JOHNSON: Robinson says adding the criminal intent provisions endangers the broader effort to dial back tough mandatory prison sentences created during the war on drugs.

ROBINSON: As far as I know - and I've been a criminal defense lawyer for 34 years - there is no problem of overincarceration for rich, white financial or environmental executives.

JOHNSON: Robinson says he's open to helping those white-collar defendants, but he's not sure they have a problem that Congress needs to solve. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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