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President Obama has granted early release to 111 more prisoners today, including 35 who had been expected to die in federal custody. This news comes as the Justice Department reports it has worked through a huge backlog of petitions from nonviolent drug criminals. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The White House says its clemency push is about making sure that punishment fits the crime. With today's action, President Obama has now commuted the sentences of 673 prisoners. More than a third of them had been sentenced to life. Neil Eggleston is the White House counsel.
NEIL EGGLESTON: For the people who have been sentenced to life in prison, when they learn that they've gotten this commutation, it's really their chance to walk their grandkid to school for the first time, hug their family members and all of that. So it's really a chance for them to experience a second chance.
JOHNSON: The Justice Department takes a close look at each inmate's petition. Lawyers study their original crime and their prison record before passing their recommendations onto the president. The clemency effort launched two years ago to help nonviolent drug offenders who would face less time if they were sentenced today. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates says prisoners flooded Justice with requests.
SALLY YATES: After the initiative was announced, thousands and thousands of individuals filed petitions, but many of those were not drug defendants at all. They were white-collar defendants, violent crime, child exploitation defendants. So we have prioritized the drug petitions and streamlined the process.
JOHNSON: Yates says her lawyers have managed to work through that enormous backlog of drug cases.
YATES: At our current pace, we are confident that we will be able to review and make a recommendation to the president on every single drug petition that we currently have.
JOHNSON: It's not clear whether the White House, which makes the final call, will finish its work on all of those petitions. But Eggleston, the president's lawyer, says he has instructions to stay on the job.
EGGLESTON: The president's view is that he would like to grant as many worthy petitions as get to his desk. And I think he's going to tell me to put worthy petitions on his desk until the last day, and that's what I intend to do.
JOHNSON: Three of Mark Osler's legal clients won clemency today. All three were lifers. It's a great day, Osler says. But by his count, 1,500 people deserve mercy, and fewer than half have received it.
MARK OSLER: I sometimes say that I feel like the guy that is rowing a lifeboat. And you're glad you have a few people in the boat, but you're feeling this impending sense of panic about the people in the water.
JOHNSON: Osler says he thinks President Obama is committed to the idea of clemency.
OSLER: I mean he visited a prison. He sat down with these people. He went to lunch with people who've received clemency. He really believes in this. And like so many other things, the tough part is the implementation and the willing to probably make some people angry.
JOHNSON: He says as the president prepares to leave office, displeasing Republicans in Congress may not matter so much to him anymore. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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