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Obama Asks Congress For Help In Overhauling Justice System


President Obama is not banking on Congress achieving in his final year in office. His State of the Union speech last night offered few big proposals.


But he did suggest something.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So I hope we can work together this year on some bipartisan priorities, like criminal justice reform and helping...


OBAMA: ...And helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been tracking criminal justice reform. She's on the line. Hi, Carrie.


INSKEEP: Can lawmakers really act on what the president described as bipartisan agreement?

JOHNSON: Well, it's going to be very, very difficult, and here's why. Congress is only around for fewer than a hundred days this year, and pretty soon all attention is going to turn to the presidential election. There is a bill, Steve, that would cut some long mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug criminals, but it's not yet been scheduled for a vote by the full Senate. And then there's Republican Ted Cruz from Texas. He's running for president, too, and he's raised some big questions about this effort. He said last year that lawmakers could have blood on their hands if they dial back on these penalties too far and then a released prisoner commits a new violent crime.

INSKEEP: And let's remember that, in the Senate, even one senator or a handful of senators can slow things down a lot, even if there were a broad bipartisan agreement. So where do things stand in the House?

JOHNSON: Pretty tough there, too, Steve. Just this week, the chairman of the judiciary committee, Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, said he needs to see some kind of criminal intent reform in this criminal justice package.


BOB GOODLATTE: I think that a deal that does not address this issue is not going anywhere in the House of Representatives.

INSKEEP: Criminal intent reform - what does that mean?

JOHNSON: Here's the translation, Steve - essentially raising the burden of proof for prosecutors in some cases like environmental crimes, corporate fraud. The problem there is the Fraternal Order of Police have opposed this, and the Justice Department says it could be a get-out-of-jail-free card for business executives. Again, not too much to figure that out this year.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning that you have to prove - you have to go to a higher level to prove that somebody meant to engage in criminal activity. You don't just have to find out exactly what they did. Now, can the White House act in executive fashion with executive orders if they can't get things through Congress?

JOHNSON: Steve, President Obama nodded to this in another part of the speech. Let's take a listen to that.


OBAMA: I see it in the American who served his time. He made bad mistakes as a child, but now is dreaming of starting over. And I see it in the business owner who gives him that second chance.

JOHNSON: So second chance - what he's talking about here is a concept known as reentry - helping prisoners back into society so they don't wind up in the criminal justice system again. And, in fact, Attorney General Loretta Lynch is touring a corrections facility in Boston today with that in mind. There's also this other issue of urging employers to ask about criminal history or background checks later in the process for hiring, an attempt to make it easier for people who have criminal histories to get jobs. Obama already did this for federal employees. The issue is whether he can do that to extend to contractors, too.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, interesting movement - ban the box. Get rid of that box where you check on the application if you've been convicted of a crime. Is the president going to be able to do anything to heal relations between police and communities?

JOHNSON: So a top priority for civil rights groups this year is making sure that police entities - about 18,000 of them around the country actually report the number of civilians that are killed by officers in the line of duty. The FBI is trying to gather this data. It's voluntary now, Steve, but advocates like the ACLU and other civil rights groups want Obama to tie the receipt of federal funds by these police agencies to a requirement to report that data so we can find out how big a problem police-involved deaths really are.

INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks as always.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

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

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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