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Criminal justice advocates are pressing the Biden administration for more action


People who work to overhaul the criminal justice system say they're frustrated with the Biden administration. Nearly a year into the new presidency, advocates are pressing for more action on clemency and sentencing reform. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Sakira Cook directs the justice program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. She counts herself an ally of the White House and the Justice Department, but Cook says her patience is wearing thin.

SAKIRA COOK: I think we're at a point where we're saying, mere lip service isn't enough, right? We want to see some concrete action.

JOHNSON: Concrete action like clemency, especially for the few thousand people who were released to home confinement by the Trump administration at the start of the pandemic. President Biden could ensure those people remain free with the stroke of a pen, but he hasn't done that yet, despite months of pressure. Kevin Ring advocates for many of those people.

KEVIN RING: To me, it's a bellwether. Because if the administration won't address this and address it immediately, I don't know what hope we can have that other things are going to get done.

JOHNSON: Ring leads the advocacy group known as FAMM. He says every day he hears from people afraid of being sent back to federal prison when the pandemic emergency ends.

RING: For somebody who isn't sure whether they can get a lease, start a family, start a relationship, begin college courses, get on with their life, it's incredibly callous to say, oh, we haven't made a decision yet, and we don't have to because this pandemic is still going on.

JOHNSON: Last week, Ring, Cook and others met with the Biden White House to turn up the pressure. So far, the president hasn't granted clemency to anyone. A White House spokesman said the president had been working to reform the system since his first day in office. He pointed to new bans on chokeholds and no-knock warrants and more services for people returning home from prison. The advocates say they're happy to give credit where it's due. And they praised the Justice Department for rescinding a Trump-era memo that directed prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges for any crimes. And they're happy the DOJ has launched four big civil rights investigations of police departments, but they've also taken note of this fact.

NAZGOL GHANDNOOSH: There's now roughly 5,000 more people in federal prisons than when President Biden entered office.

JOHNSON: That's Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a researcher at The Sentencing Project. She says the drop in the federal prison population that began under President Obama and continued under Trump is now over. Homicides and shootings have risen in many places around the country, but the vast majority of those cases are prosecuted by states and locals, not the federal government. Some of the increase is because courts and prisons slowed down at the start of the pandemic, only to restart this year. Ghandnoosh says she expected more than what she calls small tinkering from the new team in Washington.

GHANDNOOSH: We would expect to hear from the attorney general and the president very vocal and unequivocal support for federal sentencing reform that's being considered right now, and that could help to give those initiatives an important boost.

JOHNSON: Democrats control both chambers of Congress with small majorities, but the administration hasn't used the bully pulpit to promote a bill that would equalize the penalties for crack and powder cocaine. Those laws have punished Black people more harshly than white people for decades for essentially the same crime. The House overwhelmingly advanced that parity legislation in September, but it's waiting for a vote in the Senate. Another criticism is about personnel. The White House hasn't taken any action to fill vacancies on the Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for many federal crimes. Again, Kevin Ring.

RING: The Sentencing Commission could be an incredible advocate for change - or a body for change - and has been in the past. Some of the best reforms that have been achieved in the last 10 years have been at the Sentencing Commission, and they haven't even nominated people to fill this naked body.

JOHNSON: Meanwhile, key allies of the White House - including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin - are demanding the Justice Department fire the head of the federal prison system because of mishandling of the exposure to COVID and other serious problems in the system. Sakira Cook of the Leadership Conference says she anticipates more action from the Biden team on criminal justice in the new year, but she points out there may not be much time to act. The administration's options could be more limited if Congress changes hands after next year's midterm elections. Carrie Johnson, NPR News.


Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.