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Bipartisan Panel Issues Urgent Call To Overhaul U.S. Prison System


We're going to turn now to an urgent call being made to overhaul federal prisons and focus on the most serious criminals. A bipartisan task force says the U.S. Bureau of Prisons spends billions of dollars every year with little benefit to public safety. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: For the past year, former Congressman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma took a hard look at U.S. prisons as the leader of the task force mandated by Congress. His conclusion...


J.C. WATTS: The system is failing those it incarcerates and the taxpayers who fund it.

JOHNSON: The new report says prison facilities are so overcrowded that officials have little money or energy to devote to help inmates re-enter society. John Wetzel, who leads the Department of Corrections in Pennsylvania, put it this way.


JOHN WETZEL: When you're walking into a prison as an employee worried about your safety, is it realistic to expect that you're going to be focused on re-entry?

JOHNSON: Former West Virginia Congressman Alan Mollohan says there's a reason for that overcrowding, and the blame rests with Congress, the courts and the Justice Department.


ALAN MOLLOHAN: Extremely long sentences for drug and weapons offenses are the leading cause of the bloated state of the federal prison system.

JOHNSON: Mollohan says almost 80 percent of the people behind bars for drug crimes had no serious history of violence. So the task force wants Congress to do away with mandatory sentences for all but the most serious of criminals, like drug kingpins. And it urges judges and prosecutors to consider each defendant case by case.

An even more controversial element of the task force report involves a concept called Second Look. That would allow inmates who've served 15 years of their sentence to petition a judge to hear their argument for early release. Cynthia Roseberry is a former public defender. She says something needs to change.

CYNTHIA ROSEBERRY: We certainly can't continue to do what we're doing now. I feel that we need to ensure that once a person serves their sentence we stamp that ticket paid in full, and part of that means preparing them for re-entry.

JOHNSON: The task force wants prison officials to expand drug treatment programs and make sure inmates can meet with their families. Again, John Wetzel.


WETZEL: Let's focus and understand that when we give folks a second chance, we give a whole 'nother group - children of incarcerated parents - a first chance.

JOHNSON: It's not clear whether lawmakers and the Obama administration will embrace the task force conclusions. The ideas in the report go far beyond legislative proposals on the table in Congress. And some people in government think that's a bad idea. One of them is Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions.

JEFF SESSIONS: Unfortunately, some people just need to be locked up.

JOHNSON: Before he became a member of Congress, Sessions was a federal prosecutor locking up drug criminals.

SESSIONS: These defendants are, for the most part, very serious offenders. Federal prosecutors, federal assistant United States attorneys, they don't focus on petty crimes and small cases.

JOHNSON: With homicides up in some big American cities this year, Session says, now is not the time to retreat from tough approaches to fight crime. He points to a recent case in Ohio where a drug offender who won early release has been charged with killing his ex-girlfriend and two of her children. Sessions says he's more open to considering another task force recommendation that would encourage authorities to let sick and elderly inmates out early under a program called Compassionate Release. Task force members visited a facility in Atlanta where they say they met with some prisoners who could barely walk. No threat to public safety, says Laurie Robinson, who attended the session.

LAURIE ROBINSON: If you think about it, people in corrections in the justice system need to have a sense of hope.

JOHNSON: And she hopes the labor of the task force will result in real change for federal prisons. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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