Long Process Begins To Win Non-Violent Drug Offenders Pardons

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It's all part of an effort to clear overcrowded prisons of non-violent drug offenders who would have received shorter sentences if they had been convicted today.


This country is taking a serious look at how many people we keep in prison. Many states are moving to reduce their prison populations.


Some want to get closer to the ideal of justice; others just need to save money. In a moment, we'll hear from one of the many states where liberals and conservatives have made common cause.

GREENE: We start at the federal level, where President Obama's administration launched a clemency initiative. The justice department is examining the cases of nonviolent drug offenders who've served more than 10 years behind bars. NPR's Carrie Johnson has an exclusive interview with an advocate in charge of connecting inmates to lawyers.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Long-time public defender Cynthia Roseberry hasn't had time to unpack the boxes stacked up in her new home in Washington. Instead, her mind's focused on a different undertaking, sifting through 20,000 surveys from inmates hoping to win pardons or commutations.

CYNTHIA ROSEBERRY: I couldn't resist doing this. First of all because it's historic, but also because I've seen firsthand how people go to prison for life for nonviolent offenses based on laws that, for example, are based on baseball - three strikes and you're out.

JOHNSON: Roseberry says she grew up in a neighborhood in Atlanta where too many people had no voice. Now, as the manager of the clemency effort, she can make a difference. I asked whether I should call her a general, but Roseberry had a different metaphor in mind.

ROSEBERRY: I am absolutely the servant of the 20,000 applicants who want to be free. I am absolutely the person who works for them.

JOHNSON: More than 1,000 private lawyers have volunteered to help. And training them in the intricate details of pardons and commutations will occupy most of Roseberry's time in the months ahead. But she says there's no way she'll lose sight of the human dimensions.

ROSEBERRY: A child who hasn't hugged her mother for a while or some father who hasn't seen his grandmother for a while, that's the success of this project - reuniting families and loved ones.

JOHNSON: Those reunions are still months away. After lawyer volunteers prepare the clemency documents, the Justice Department needs to review them. And in the White House, President Obama will make the final call about who will be released from the nation's overcrowded prisons. Carrie Johnson. NPR News, Washington.

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