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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In dire need of spending cuts, states across the country are sharply reducing the population in prison. Reductions in the number going in -New York State, for example, appears set to drop mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and increases in early release. Kansas has closed two detention facilities. California's considering the release of tens of thousands of non-violent offenders. And the numbers on parole are way up in Kentucky and Arizona, to name just two more states. The Pew Center on the States issued a report this month that found it costs about 20 times more to keep someone behind bars than if they were on probation or on parole. Given the depth of the budget problems, it's no longer a question of whether this is good idea or not, it's happening. So what's the best way to do it?

Later in the hour, can justice and conflict resolution sometimes be mutually exclusive? Former UN Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour joins us to take your calls.

But first: many fewer people in prison. We want to hear from people who've had experience with the corrections system as cops, parole officers, corrections officers or prisoners. Did the system give you what you needed? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Adam Gelb directs Pew's Public Safety Performance Project, and he's among the authors of the Pew report on prison spending, "One in Thirty-One." He joins us from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. ADAM GELB (Director, Pew's Public Safety Performance Project,; Co-Author of "One in Thirty-One" Study): Good to speak with you, Neal.

CONAN: And how widespread is this trend toward more early release?

Mr. GELB: Well, I would have to say, Neal, your characterization is a bit premature. It is very mixed bag, what we're seeing around the country these days. You have some states, the ones you mentioned, that are pulling back. Other states are still growing. So I don't think it's the case at this point at all that we're going to see a sharp decrease in the number of inmates.

CONAN: Well, thank you for the correction. But nevertheless, we've had some changes in policy very much swinging back the other way, at least in some states.

Mr. GELB: Oh, no question. And I would add Texas to your list, quite prominently. You're seeing bipartisan coalitions of lawmakers in states all across this country say getting tough on criminals has gotten too tough on taxpayers, and it's not giving us the return in terms of public safety that we'd like to see. And so you are seeing - in places like Texas and in Kansas, as you mentioned, and Arizona and Pennsylvania -these groups of lawmakers coming together and finding a path to public safety that does not involve so much taxpayer spending. And that does involve releasing inmates from prison using carefully selected risk assessment tools and making sure that they're releasing lowest-risk inmates from prison.

But it also means, Neal, selecting on the front end of the system people who don't necessarily need a prison cell in the first place, and that is particularly offenders who have not actually even committed a new crime, but those who have broken the rules of their release, their probation or their parole. They have missed a meeting with their probation officer. They have failed a drug test. They haven't shown up for a treatment session. And often, these - those kind of violators are taking up large numbers of prison cells. And there's a realization now that particularly in this economic crises, we can't afford $25,000 a year to hold those people. There are more effective and less expensive ways to handle them.

CONAN: And what percentage of state expenditures - and I realize it varies state to state. But broadly, what expenditure of state - percentage of state expenditures does corrections, the prison system take up?

Mr. GELB: It's seven percent now of general fund expenditures. And that's double what it was 25 years ago. You know, the prison system has expanded massively. In our report, we document that we are now at a point where there are one in every 100 adults behind bars in this country, and one in 31 adults who are under some form of correctional supervision. And yet for all that expansion over the past 25 years, prisons have gotten almost all the money. Prisons have accounted for about a third of the growth in that overall population, which is now at 7.3 million American adults, yet 90 percent of that additional funding goes to prisons.

CONAN: We're hoping to hear from those with experience in the corrections system as parole officers, as cops, as corrections officers and those who were prisoners, too. Did you get what you needed on release? How was the release system working where you are? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's begin with Jennifer, and Jennifer is calling us from Phoenix, Arizona.

JENNIFER: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: My comment - hi. My comment was that I - here in Maricopa County, Arizona, our offenders who get out on probation have, over the past couple of years, just from my experience, they have shown themselves to be a lot more violent than probationers in years past.

CONAN: And what is your experience, Jennifer?

JENNIFER: Well, just that their criminal histories are…

CONAN: Do you work in the system?

JENNIFER: Yeah.

CONAN: What do you do?

JENNIFER: I'm a probation officer.

CONAN: You're a probation - so you have direct experience in this?

JENNIFER: Yes.

CONAN: And so, from your experience, the people you work with directly are more violent than they were a few years ago?

JENNIFER: That's correct. It seems, just from my perspective again, that judges are more reluctant to send people to prison, and we're asked a lot more to work with the offenders.

CONAN: And is this causing problems, do you think?

JENNIFER: Well, in some ways, it does. And then in other ways, you know, if someone is ready to turn his life around, regardless of his criminal history, he's given an opportunity to do that.

CONAN: Are you overworked? I think everybody would say yes to that question, but are you more overworked than you used to be?

JENNIFER: Well, our community is really supportive of probation, but we are going - we're probably going to face some cutbacks in our department by July, and I suspect that our workload will go up.

CONAN: Okay, thanks very much for the call, Jennifer. We appreciate it.

JENNIFER: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And I wanted to bring another voice into the conversation. Joining us now is Peggy Burke, a principal with the Center for Effective Public Policy. She works with community corrections agencies and parole programs all over the country. She's with us today here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on the program.

Ms. PEGGY BURKE (Principal, Center for Effective Public Policy): Thank you, Neal. Glad to be here.

CONAN: And I wonder how that experience in Maricopa County, Arizona, comports with what you hear typically.

Ms. BURKE: I think Jennifer's observations are fairly typical. I think the populations are getting more difficult. I think her observation, though, that when offenders are ready to turn their lives around, that a good probation officer working with them and with other resources in the community can be much more effective, really, than a straight incarceration approach.

CONAN: Nevertheless, that part that people are more violent than they used to be, that's a little scary.

Ms. BURKE: It is. It is. No question about that.

CONAN: And are there programs in place to help ameliorate those kinds of situations?

Ms. BURKE: Absolutely. There is very good research that's growing every year about effective interventions with offenders. And, of course, many of them are, in fact, violent. And the research is suggesting that when we target the criminogenic needs that are driving that violence, when we tailor our approaches, when we use incentives as well as punishments, and when we use good pro-social supports in the community, we can be very successful.

CONAN: And earlier, we were talking about the releases of non-violent offenders in places like California. Adam Gelb, that could come up as the result as of federal court decision. Nevertheless, people who've committed violent crimes, well, eventually, most of them are released, too.

Ms. BURKE: Yes. Well, eventually, everyone is released, unless they have the death penalty or life without parole. And so we are - it's important that we develop strategies to deal with these more serious offenders as - when they, in fact, do come out.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, and let's see if we can go to John, and John's with us from Fort Myers in Florida.

JOHN (Caller): Yes, hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JOHN: My son was involved with a minor drug charge, and what I found out here in Florida is that the rules of probation require, of course, counseling and urine tests, etc. But every time he goes to one of those, he has to pay some sort of fee.

So he'll pay 90, $100 a week just to try to keep up with his probation, which fortunately we have the resources to deal with. But I realize that the reason in Florida so many people violate probation is not because they want to. It's because they don't have the money when they show up for their services, and therefore, they get thrown back in jail.

CONAN: Adam Gelb, can you help us out here? Is that common?

Mr. GELB: Well, offender-pay supervision certainly is common, and it ought to be. Taxpayers shouldn't be expected to foot the full bill for the cost of supervision of offenders who can be in the community, working jobs, supporting their families, paying child support and paying restitution to the victim. It should not be a free ride.

On the other hand, departments and courts in particular should be setting conditions that offenders can meet and not overcharging people to the point where if they can't pay, they'll be violated and put back in a prison cell and cost taxpayers even more.

So this has got to be thought through very carefully and, as Peggy said, on an individualized basis to fit the conditions of supervision to the individual needs and risks that are presented by each offender.

CONAN: John, how's your son doing?

JOHN: Oh, he's doing well, and fortunately, we have the resources to help him. But every day, if you open up a newspaper here even in this small town, you'll see 50 people who violated probation. And most of it I'm sure is because of the fact that they're poor and they simply don't earn enough money to come up with that kind of money on a daily basis.

CONAN: John, thanks very much. And we hope your son continues to do well. Peggy Burke, is he right about the probation violations, a lot of them being simply unable to pay these fees?

Ms. BURKE: There certainly are many individuals who are revoked from either probation or parole because of violations of technical rules such as the payment of fees.

I think that agencies nationwide are becoming much more sensitive to that and much more aware of that as a practice that they would like to change. They'd like to be more strategic about it.

Clearly, if someone is deliberately flouting the conditions of supervision, then they need to be held to account. On the other hand, if there are difficulties in keeping rules, we can hold people accountable in other ways than sending them back to prison.

We can put them on curfew. We can ask them to do community service. We can up their supervision contact. So there are many ways to hold offenders accountable without actually sending them back to prison.

CONAN: And Adam Gelb, very briefly, you also talked to some technological solutions to this, drug tests that, well, they get immediate results, GPS systems that can monitor the whereabouts of certain kinds of prisoners.

They sound expensive. Nevertheless, they are still considerably cheaper than putting somebody behind bars.

Mr. GELB: Well, that's exactly right. And Neal, what we're able to do in the report is for the first time in a long time document actually what it's costing states to put somebody in prison versus what it's costing them to supervise people on probation. And what we found was that it's 22 times more per day. And you can double or triple, quadruple what we spend on supervising offenders with technology and other counseling and support systems and still do it at a fraction of the cost of a prison cell.

CONAN: We're talking about the practice of early release and parole and probation and, well, how that compares with keeping people behind bars and the financial straits that many states find themselves in.

More after a short break. Stay with us. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. To cut costs, several states hope to move prisoners out of their cells into programs like parole.

Today, we're talking about the best ways to do that. Our guests are Adam Gelb, who directs the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Center on the States and helped write the recent Pew report on prison spending. You can find a link to that at npr.org/talk.

Also with us, Peggy Burke with the Center for Effective Public Policy. She works with community corrections agencies and parole programs all over the country.

We want to hear from those of you with experience with the corrections system as cops, parole officers, prisoners. Did the system give you what you needed? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org, and here's an email from Sean in St. Louis.

As a probation officer, there are many individuals who could utilize social programs in the community who are being detained due to violations and minor offenses. America is experiencing a need for community supervision on a huge level, and this means not just letting offenders out of prison, but providing with the programs and interventions needed to rehabilitate them in the community.

One should not just let out a felon and provide him no services to cope with his environment and expect him not to recidivate. However, this requires money, too.

And Peggy Burke, we were speaking earlier with that parole officer Jennifer in Maricopa County, Arizona, who said well, yeah, some things are working well, but we expect staff cutbacks in the next couple of months.

Is there - even if states realize savings by going to programs like parole or early release, is there any guarantee that those savings, or at least a proportion of them, are going to be put back into the corrections system?

Ms. BURKE: Well, first, I would like to agree with my friend in Missouri. I think his comments about what's required when you do put someone on community supervision are absolutely right on.

I think that many correctional administrators around the country are trying very hard to make good decisions about how to cut back and also redeploy resources because I think they are aware, as many of us are, that you really need to put resources into interventions with offenders in order to reduce the risk of those higher-risk offenders.

And so it's very important that we simply not assume that we can just release people or make caseloads enormously high. We have to have a strategy about how to manage and reduce the risk of offenders who are in the community.

The Pew study does a great job of outlining that strategy.

CONAN: And I was just going to ask Adam Gelb about that, if he had any statistics, any data to show whether people released early, well, end up going back to prison at any greater or lesser rate than those that have been before.

Mr. GELB: Well, there is, Neal. And what's interesting, really, is that there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of relationship between the length of stay in prison and the recidivism rate.

So it's a very tricky issue, but the most recent research confirms that finding that's been around for a long time, which is that, you know, particularly when you're talking about 30 less days or 60 less days, there is just no impact on recidivism, yet there can be a tremendous savings for the state. And that's why you see so many states - again, those led by Republicans and Democrats alike - looking at this in terms of short-term savings.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Leroy(ph) from Hollis in Michigan.

LEROY (Caller): Yes, hi. Long-time listener, first-time caller. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

LEROY: Well, I was on probation for five years due to two felonies I got nine years ago, and now it seems like I face discrimination when I put in job applications because I have to list my criminal record. And it just feels like it's harder to get ahead.

CONAN: And in this economy, harder to get ahead can verge on impossible.

LEROY: It can verge on impossible. And I'm deprived of the ability to join the military. I can't find a job. Sometimes I can't legally vote, even though I do because I feel it's my constitutional right. But I think that people like me have a lot to offer, given the opportunity.

CONAN: Nevertheless, when employers don't - do they have a right to know that you committed felonies in the past?

LEROY: Well, sure. But I think that we should look at possibly allowing people to expunge their criminal records because, you know - I know I've been trying to do well for the past nine years, ever since I got in trouble. And you know, it seems like I try to go talk to the courts about getting expunged - expunge this off my criminal record, and they just don't want to listen.

CONAN: There's not much of a mechanism to do that, is there, Peggy Burke?

Ms. BURKE: Well, I wouldn't say that. I'm not sure about the exact statutes in his - in Hollis' state, but I think he raises an enormously good point about the barriers that exist for individuals who come out of prison and back into the community, even those who really want to do well.

And there are many states around the country and many advocacy groups around the country who are trying to identify those specific barriers around employment, around housing and around voting, particularly, to try and get those barriers down. And there's been significant movement in that direction in many states around the country.

So Hollis, hang in there. We're going to try and do a better job for you.

CONAN: Good luck to you.

LEROY: Thank you. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Randy, Randy with us from Detroit - another caller from Michigan.

RANDY (Caller): Hi Neal, thanks. You've got a great program. I appreciate you taking the call.

CONAN: Well, thanks for the call. Go ahead, please.

RANDY: You know, I wanted to offer some perspective on this. I think the first comment from one of your guests indicated that it was really important to have good analytical tools to determine who does and doesn't deserve or get early release.

My cousins in 2002 were actually murdered, along with another individual, in Flint by a man named Patrick Shellipack(ph), who was wrongfully released from prison.

The more disconcerting part is when he was on probation, he committed a number of probation violations, none of which were picked up by the probation officer. Had any of those system checks been implemented, he would've been put back in jail and the murders would've never occurred.

And so I think it's important to balance fiscal challenges that states are having with the basic responsibility to keep their citizens safe. And if we're looking at early release, we should also look at other corrections reforms, you know, including perhaps privatization or any number of things that are being discussed. It's important that the public be kept safe.

CONAN: Obviously, it's important that the public be kept safe, and nothing is going to keep us safe from errors, Randy. This was a man released by mistake, as you said. That doesn't make it any less infuriating.

RANDY: No, no, it certainly doesn't. I think the harder piece, though, is mistakes can and will happen, but there has to be better oversight because had the probation officers been doing their job, had they been following up on him, they would have found that he was in possession of a firearm, that he was using drugs and alcohol, that he was, you know, hanging out with other felons.

And none of these - I mean, it was multiple, multiple, multiple problems. And so if we're going to get into a system where we're considering or enacting early-release policies, I think we as the general public need to be very aware and put pressure on the corrections system to make sure that they do their job the right way to keep the rest of us safe.

CONAN: Randy, we're sorry for your loss.

RANDY: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call, and Adam Gelb, your proposals are based on the idea that programs work and that people do them carefully. Obviously, mistakes are made, it's not only in the release of prisoners, but also people like this man will fall through the cracks of probation officers.

Mr. GELB: Well, there's no question. It sounds like a tragic situation, and one that may have been able to have been avoided. Everything is not about funding, but probation agencies, as we document in the report, have gotten just pitifully poor share of the increase in corrections spending over the past 25 years.

States now spending $50 billion a year on corrections, yet only about five or six million of that on probation, even though two-thirds of the offenders are on probation or parole. So these agencies are overwhelmed, and they could be doing a lot better job with additional resources and additional supervision technology.

But accountability is also a huge piece of this, and offenders need to be held accountable for complying with their rules of supervision, and agencies need to be accountable for following their policies and procedures and the programs that offender's in for implementing programs that have been proven to work recidivism.

You know, Neal, when we started the prison-building boom about 25, 30 years ago, we didn't know really that much about what works to supervise offenders and get them back on the right path. We know a tremendous amount more now, and when we do what we know works through research, we can reduce recidivism by about 30 percent. And that's a huge benefit to taxpayers and to public safety.

CONAN: Yet Peggy Burke, you know as well as I do that it doesn't take too many cases like that one we just heard about where politics can turn this around on a dime. It is outrageous, people think, that people who should be in prison are released and go and kill people.

Ms. BURKE: Yes, it's a very tragic case. The Shellipack case was a horrible experience for everyone in the state of Michigan, most of all for the victims.

But you make a good point. You say that no system is foolproof and that sometimes mistakes will happen. Or even if everyone is doing exactly the right thing, bad things will happen because it's impossible to predict in a single human being what that human being is going to do in the future.

I think corrections administrators are beginning to say around the country, judge us by our overall performance across time, reducing levels of crime, reducing levels of recidivism and not on the single case.

CONAN: Let's get Dieter(ph) on the line, Dieter with us from Portland, Oregon.

DIETER (Caller): Hello. My name is Dieter, and I've been in probation since I was about 18 years old. And about two years ago, I got released for a robbery charge into residential integrated treatment services for drug and alcohol counseling. It's for drug and mental health issues, and it's a rare program that they only have here in Portland.

CONAN: And how did that work out for you?

DIETER: It's doing well. I'm still here at Residential Integrated Treatment Services. And we go to groups and we go to 12-step meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous, and they teach us about mental health and they give us medication and stuff. It's for people who have mental health diagnosises(ph) and mental - drug and alcohol problems and criminality problems as well, as a result of that.

CONAN: Peggy Burke, there is astonishing percentages of people in prison who have difficulties, not just with drugs and alcohol, but with mental health problems, yes.

Ms. BURKE: Uh-huh. Yes. And I'd like to respond specifically to this gentlemen, because I wanted to mention Maricopa County, which is Portland, Oregon, and their Department of Community Justice which runs…

CONAN: Multnomah County.

Ms. BURKE: I'm sorry, Multnomah County, in - that runs their community probation and parole. And this is an agency that's really committed itself to practice based on research.

And over the last 10 years, they have had enormous success in reducing the recidivism rate of individuals on supervision in that community. And part of what the strategy entails is this program that this gentleman is speaking about.

CONAN: And Dieter, it sounds like you've been in and out your whole adult life. How old are you now?

DIETER: I'm 24.

CONAN: And is this something you think you're gonna be able to stick with?

DIETER: Yes. I am studying at the library and soon I might be able to get in school. And I'm working on ways to focus my mind without altering my mind with, like, drugs, like marijuana.

CONAN: And that will help you - well, obviously, stay away from people who can get you into trouble on any number of levels outside.

DIETER: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Good luck to you.

DIETER: Okay. Goodbye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And Dieter is talking about one program, Adam Gelb, but there are other programs -there are people for whom obligations for the state to monitor them will be life-long - sex offenders - that sort of thing.

Mr. GELB: Sure. And, Neal, just sort of yet another reason why you see the dynamic shifting here in the States.

You know, if people are really serious about public safety, they want to reduce recidivism and they want to do it in a way that is cost effective, there gonna have to be some give and take. And that means that low-risk offenders, offenders with mental illness and drug addiction problems who do not present as best we know, and Peggy made this point a second ago, there's no fool-proof method here, but as best we know, those lower-risk offenders can be put in programs like that in Multnomah County and elsewhere, where there's a combination of strict supervision and evidence-based services that can do a pretty darn good job of stopping the revolving door.

CONAN: Adam Gelb is with Pew Center on the States and author of the Pew report on prison spending, "One in Thirty-One." Also with us, Peggy Burke, a principal with the Center for Effective Public Policy.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Maria on the line. Maria, calling us from Minneapolis.

MARIAH (Caller): Hi, it's Mariah.

CONAN: Mariah, excuse me, I apologize.

MARIAH: That's okay. My boyfriend was currently - got a DWI, so he had to go to a jail for things. And I live in Minnesota so he had to go to Dakota County. And there they have something called pay-for-stay. So, he has to pay basically room and board, $20 per day, every day that he is in custody.

So I was wondering if any of your guests had - does that happen anywhere else? Because I know in Minnesota, that's the only county that does that. So I was wondering if there's anywhere else in the country that does that, or does it help, is it a trend that's moving - things like that.

CONAN: Peggy Burke, can you help us out there?

Ms. BURKE: I certainly am aware of the supervision fees that agencies charge offenders, to both give them an incentive to get better and also to help defray their cost and to hold them accountable. Not so familiar with the pay-for-stay program. Maybe Adam is.

CONAN: Adam, are you familiar with it? Obviously, it cost them more than $20 a day to house an inmate.

Mr. GELB: Sure, not pay-for-stay per se. I'm not particularly familiar with it.

CONAN: All right. Mariah, thanks very much. We hope everything works out.

MARIAH: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

MARIAH: Bye.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go now to Katie(ph). Katie, with us from Anchorage, in Alaska.

KATIE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

KATIE: Hi. I am a convicted felon and I'm calling because I want to just let people know what's going on here in the state of Alaska.

Currently, there is very few transition programs for people to - when they're being released, to reenter with support that helps them with resume building skills, with getting a job, especially women in the state.

And I can tell you that, based on my own experience, I wouldn't be where I am five years - or actually seven years later after being released -if it hadn't been for the support of family and friends and helping me when I first got out, because there was no transition program.

And I - my crime was not related to drugs or violence. I ended up embezzling funds unfortunately. And if you don't meet certain criteria, like you're - if you're not a drug addict or you're not a prostitute, or you don't have any other substance abuse problems, there's no transition programs for people.

And so, I mean, I was literally told by my in-house probation officer that I should flat time, to serve my 28 months so I didn't have to worry about paying restitution when I got out.

And I just said, no, I can't do that. I have obligations and I need to pay this money back. But I actually had people in the system telling me, you should just stay in.

CONAN: Hmm.

KATIE: And I mean, and that would have cost the state a lot more and I would have walked away from my obligation of restitution.

So, those kinds of, you know, systems where it's easier to stay in jail than go pay your obligations and do community service and do probation, that's not helping people, as far as reentering society and being accountable.

And so, I guess my point is, people need support, but we also need transition programs for people, and we need systems that don't encourage people to flat time. And…

CONAN: Katie, I'm gonna cut you off because I wanted to give Peggy Burke a chance to respond. We just have a few seconds left.

Ms. BURKE: Well, I think that Kathie has discovered one of the lessons of the research, which is that family and friends and pro-social supports are absolutely essential to successful transition from prison. And that's one of the things that probation and parole agencies are beginning to incorporate into their supervision.

CONAN: She sounds like she's also - we need a lot more left to go before we get this right.

Ms. BURKE: Yeah.

CONAN: Katie, thank you so much for the call and continue - good luck to you.

KATIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

And we'd like to thank our guests. You just heard from Peggy Burke, who is with the Center for Effective Public Policy. She was with us here in Studio 3A. We thank her for her time today.

Ms. BURKE: Thank you.

CONAN: And Adam Gelb, who is with us from Georgia Public Broadcasting. He's director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Center on the States. Adam, thank you so much.

Mr. GELB: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Up next, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour on justice and conflict resolution. Do they mean the same thing or are those goals sometimes mutually exclusive? Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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