AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Of all the legislation that has a shot at passing on Capitol Hill, criminal justice reform is near the top of the list.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Republican supporters of reform want to reduce the costs of overcrowded prisons. Democrats want to ease the mandatory sentencing rules for nonviolent drug offenders, rules that fueled the boom in the federal prison population. It's an issue that has brought together everyone from the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch to the ACLU.
CORNISH: For his part, President Obama has pushed changes at the federal level, like a new rule banning solitary confinement for juveniles and limiting its use for other prisoners. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett says it's just a first step.
VALERIE JARRETT: There are about a hundred thousand who are in solitary confinement, 10,000 in the federal system. That's a lot of people, and what the studies are showing is that the impact of solitary confinement can have a devastating consequence to the psychology of the people who are affected.
CORNISH: I spoke with Jarrett earlier today about whether she thinks a broader bipartisan criminal justice deal can happen, especially in an election year. And I asked her why the Obama administration is focused on nonviolent offenders despite the fact that large numbers of people in state and local prisons are there for violent crimes.
JARRETT: Part of what we want to do here is to take a look at, what can we do to give judges more discretion so that they don't have to impose mandatory minimums. We hear from the judges looking at the facts of a particular case that they think the person needs to be in drug treatment or they need to be in a better home environment. There are all kinds of reasons you wouldn't think that the better solution would be not to incarcerate somebody. And so we want to start with looking at the nonviolent drug offenses and tailor the sentence more accurately to the crime, and that's why we have strong bipartisan support.
CORNISH: But do you lose that support if you start to noodle around the edges of violent offenses...
JARRETT: We do.
CORNISH: ...Of saying we need to...
JARRETT: We do.
CORNISH: ...Reconsider these...
JARRETT: We do right...
CORNISH: ...Laws as well?
JARRETT: We do right now because I think the sense is we really want to make sure that we're not releasing violent offenders onto the streets. And so if we can begin with the nonviolent drug offenders, it's an important first step. It doesn't mean that we wouldn't come back if research indicated that we should tailor other parts of our judicial system. But lets start with where we have consensus and move forward and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
CORNISH: So one of the sticking points in the House - Republicans want a provision that would essentially raise the burden of proof for federal prosecutors going after white-collar criminals. And they say this is a dealbreaker. I mean, would you support a bill that includes this kind of provision if it means getting the other sentencing reforms that you want - right? - like, basically getting what you want for these nonviolent drug offenders if it means that it makes it easier for white-collar criminals to push their case?
JARRETT: Well, we think that the bill that's currently being considered is far too broad, and it says that you have to have an intent to do every crime. And there are some crimes which we've determined - it doesn't matter whether you have the intent because we look at the harm that it has on society. So for example, if you shoot somebody and you don't realize they're a U.S. marshal, you could say, well, you didn't have the intent to shoot a U.S. marshal. But we want to be able to bring federal charges. Or if you statutorily rape somebody, we have a standard that says you don't have to know how old the person is. We think that the crime is so egregious that we're going to prosecute you for that.
And so we don't support getting rid of or requiring every single crime having intent. The Senate bill provides that you would do an inventory of all of the federal statutes to see which ones require intent and which ones don't. And so we would support that.
CORNISH: You know, while overall crime has been down during this presidency, you are seeing homicide rates that have risen in several cities. And you know, when you think back to the way that there was that scandal over the furloughed prisoner Willie Horton, notoriously, during the 1988 presidential campaign, what worries you about trying to do this in an election year? Like, are you one high-profile crime or one election ad away from this falling apart?
JARRETT: Well, I think it's important to try to move forward as quickly as we can. I think, again, the fact that there is bipartisan support gives us the ability to resist some of the people who try to derail what is really an important constructive step for us to take. And the fact that it's an election year doesn't mean that the American people don't expect us to work on their behalf. And so...
CORNISH: But the election - the American people in the past, as voters, are very much swayed by crime - right? - by sort of reform efforts that they see as endangering them. I mean...
JARRETT: Well, we wouldn't be doing this. The president wouldn't have put his full support behind this if he didn't think it actually left our community safer. That's why we have so much support from law enforcement because our current system is definitely broken, and it's not the - what we were talking about, which is the sentencing, but it's also, what are we doing with people while they're incarcerated? Are we giving them the tools that they need to reenter society successfully, whether those are services for drug addiction or educational tools that they need or a whole host of resources that we should be providing to them so that when they reenter society, they are not a threat to society.
CORNISH: I mean, while the president can issue an order to the Bureau of Prisons, while he can make an executive action, these affect a few thousand people in the federal prison system. And so at the end of the day, is he trying to just push a cultural shift in thinking about this, right? He can't actually really truly reduce what people are calling mass incarceration...
JARRETT: What he can do is this.
CORNISH: ...in little actions.
JARRETT: What he can do is this. He can lead by example. He can use the Justice Department and encourage them to use their grants that they have available to support programs at the state and local level that reflect those best practices. And yes, he can have a conversation, which is why I wanted to come on your show today, so that the American people begin to understand the impact that this unfair system is having on a population of 2 million people right now and 2 million people with children, with parents.
And so we do have to ask ourselves as a culture, what do we want to be? You know, what are our founding values? And if we are a society where everybody should have that fair shot and get a second chance, then we should take the necessary steps to implement that and make it a reality.
CORNISH: You mentioned their families and having a second chance. You know, what's your response to people who are listening to this who may have been a victim of a crime who aren't interested in these stories - right? - who fundamentally say, look; you're in prison for a reason.
JARRETT: Well, you have - well, that's a very valid point. And so the question is, does the punishment fit the crime? So we're not saying that we shouldn't punish people. We're not talking about a society that tolerates lawlessness. We should be very tough on people who are perpetuating violent crimes, for example. But we should make sure that it's tailored and not arbitrary. And right now with mandatory minimums, that's arbitrary. This is not a leniency program for those who've been incarcerated. It's recognizing the fact that if we invest in them and help them turn their lives around, the chances of them going out and victimizing somebody else actually goes down.
CORNISH: Well, Valerie Jarrett, thank you so much for coming in to speak with us.
JARRETT: Thank you, Audie. It's a pleasure for me to be here.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.