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How Obama left his mark on the criminal justice system

January 10, 2017 at 6:25 PM EST
President Obama has commuted the sentences of more federal prisoners than any other president, and he’s on track to leave far fewer federal inmates in federal prison since the 1960s. Hari Sreenivasan offers a look through the life of a former prisoner. Then William Brangham gets an assessment from Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and former Florida attorney general Bill McCullum.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: As president, Mr. Obama made a pledge to shine a light on mass incarceration and criminal justice issues. Among other things, he has used his executive power to grant clemency to more people than any other president in modern history.

As part of our series The Obama Years, the “NewsHour”‘s Hari Sreenivasan begins our coverage.

NORMAN BROWN: “Dear Norman, I wanted to personally inform you that I will be granting your application for commutation.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Norman Brown is reading the letter from President Obama that gave him his life back. For 24.5 years, he was in federal prison for selling drugs in Washington, D.C., specifically six counts of distributing cocaine. It was his third strike, and that meant life without parole.

NORMAN BROWN: I never thought that I would get no more than maybe 15 years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While he was in prison, his parents, his grandmother, his brother all died, his children grew up, and the men sentenced with him were released.

NORMAN BROWN: I wanted to get out to prove to people that I had a monster sentence, but I wasn’t a monster.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Brown took classes, taught others, earned certificates for trade skills and was a model prisoner.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is my strong belief that, by exercising these presidential powers, I have the chance to show people what a second chance can look like.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The president explained his motivation this year at a lunch with clemency recipients, including Brown.

In 2014, Mr. Obama began a large-scale clemency project, reducing the sentences of mostly nonviolent drug offenders, after his administration’s efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system failed in Congress the previous year.

NORMAN BROWN: And being an example for you all is a part of my duty.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Brown has been out for a year now. He mentors kids in the juvenile justice system as a volunteer for the Washington Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and helps former prisoners like him re-enter society.

NORMAN BROWN: It’s about growing up.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Steve Wasserman of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys defends the strict sentencing guidelines that put people like Brown behind bars for so long.

STEVEN WASSERMAN, National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys: When you look at recidivism rates in this country, they range anywhere from 50 to 75 percent. The statistics would indicate that a large number of them will reoffend. And they will reoffend in a variety of different ways, which will victimize people, the public. And that’s where our core concern is.

HARI SREENIVASAN: President Obama has received more than 35,000 petitions for clemency in the past eight years. He’s granted 1,324; 1,176 of those are commutations that simply shorten a sentence; 148 are presidential pardons, which forgive a person’s conviction and reinstate civil liberties, like voting.

There are still 12,000 commutation petitions awaiting a decision before the end of Obama’s term.

Darrin Perkins has filed for one. In 1993, he was sentenced to life without parole on conspiracy charges for distribution of crack cocaine in Washington, D.C. Mandatory guidelines in effect at the time made it difficult to sentence him with anything less than life in prison without parole.

Perkins’ family still lives in the same D.C. neighborhood and has stood by him for the almost 26 years that he’s been locked up. His youngest child, Brandi Patterson, was born after Perkins’ incarceration.

BRANDI PATTERSON: My dad’s been in jail for 26 years. I think that he’s definitely served his debt. He’s paid his debt to society. And he wasn’t able to see his children grow. And I feel like the little bit of time that he does have left with us, that he should be able to experience it physically.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Perkins’ eldest son, Delonte Simon, knows his father was far from perfect, but wonders what life would be like if his arrest never happened.

DELONTE SIMON: Me and Brandi talked about, if our father was out, how would we be or how would things be with our family? Would we be the same people? Would our family be as strong as it is now? What, we don’t know. But, at the end of the day, everything happens for a reason.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Even the judge who sentenced him to life sent a letter to the president saying he would have imposed a shorter sentence if the law had allowed it.

Perkins told the “NewsHour” in an e-mail from prison that he will continue to fight for his freedom, but is unsure what a Trump administration will mean for his future.

DONALD TRUMP (R), President-Elect: I am the law and order candidate.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

HARI SREENIVASAN: President-elect Trump has been silent on his plans for clemency, but his pick for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, made it clear in a 2014 press release that the current administration has overstepped. Sessions called the president’s sentencing reform efforts — quote — “a thumb in the eye of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, court and prison personnel.”

Wasserman says the reason why President Obama is granting massive amounts of clemency are the major problem.

STEVEN WASSERMAN: He’s granting essentially mass commutations simply because he disagrees with the law as duly passed by Congress. And we believe that that is an historical break from previous presidents’ exercise of that power.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While Perkins and his family wait and hope to receive a letter from the president…

NORMAN BROWN: “I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: … Norman Brown knows the responsibility that comes with it.

Even the president in his letter tells you people are going to doubt you, whether you are reformed, whether you can live a clean, good life. I mean, it’s a challenge.

NORMAN BROWN: Yes.

And I wouldn’t want to let him down. I wouldn’t want to let — because to let him down means that the process of clemency doesn’t work. And I say that because of the fact that, if we are not given a second chance, that means a lot of us who have talents that society can use will just dry-rot in jail.

And society needs what we have to offer. Yes, we made a mistake, but who hasn’t?

“So, good luck. Godspeed. Sincerely yours, President Obama.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: For the “PBS NewsHour,” Hari Sreenivasan, Waldorf, Maryland.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in addition to the president’s record on executive clemency, we wanted to take a broader look at his overall record on criminal justice reform.

William Brangham has that look.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: President Obama often points out that the U.S. is 5 percent of the world’s population, but has over 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. His administration has tried various initiatives to change that reality. But how successful has that effort been?

I’m joined now by Wesley Lowery. He’s a reporter for The Washington Post who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on policing, and he’s the author of the book “They Can’t Kill Us All.” And I’m joined by Bill McCollum. He’s a former congressman from Florida and former attorney general of the state. He’s now a lawyer in private practice.

Welcome, gentlemen, to you both.

Wesley Lowery, I would like to start with you.

One of the things that is one of the most dramatic efforts that the Obama administration has made is the Department of Justice intervening in local police departments to try to stamp out what they see as abuses there. This has happened in almost two dozen police departments around the country.

Broadly speaking, can you tell us, what are they trying to do, and how successful has that effort been?

WESLEY LOWERY, The Washington Post: What we see in these cases has been a very aggressive Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.

And so what they would do in a case like Ferguson or Baltimore is send federal investigators to that town, to that city to conduct investigations. They would request reams of data. They would dig through internal documents.

And what they were essentially doing is preparing a prosecution document, these reports that you would see, in which the Department of Justice would lay out their case for litigation. They would argue that a police department is violating the civil rights of its residents, whether it be through traffic stops or through use of force. And it would lay those things out, essentially with the threat to sue the city and sue the department.

In order to prevent that lawsuit, many of these departments and these cities would enter what are called federal consent decrees, and so — in which the city and department agree to a certain set of reforms and agree to some type of federal monitoring for a period of time, something the Obama administration has used very aggressively in order to try to force change to departments that otherwise might not have seen it, because what we have to remember is, the federal government actually has very little power over local police departments, based on kind of our system of government.

Policing is a small government, local issue. This is one of the few ways that the federal government can actually make the police in your town or your city behave differently.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Bill McCollum, I wonder what your take on that is. What is your sense of how the Obama administration has handled its efforts to reform police in the country?

BILL MCCOLLUM, Former Florida Attorney General: Well, I don’t think, first of all, that the need of reform of police is very strong. But they have gone into a few communities. I don’t doubt that, out of the thousands of local police and sheriff’s departments, there are some that need some kind of attention.

But the biggest problem I see with the Obama administration’s approach is that it’s all civil rights-focused. It doesn’t recognize the fact that the police overall do a terrific job and need more support. Their morale is at an all-time low today around the country as a result of, frankly, the president’s lack of leadership or his misdirection in that leadership in the face of some very serious incidents that I think did need some attention.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Wesley Lowery, in defending his own record, the president this weekend cited that we have seen historically low levels of crime during his presidency. Can the president take credit for that? He is taking credit for it, but is that a legitimate thing to claim?

WESLEY LOWERY: You know, it is certainly accurate and true that we are seeing some of the lowest levels of crime in the history of the United States of America. The Obama years are some of the most peaceful years in American history as it relates to crime.

I think New York City just had the least violent year in its modern recorded history. Now, that means very little to a family living in West Englewood, Chicago, right, or in Englewood, or in many of the neighborhoods in Baltimore and even here in D.C.

And so we have — what we have certainly seen is that the majority of the country has become safer, and yet the places that are dangerous have become more dangerous.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Bill, one of the other things that President Obama has taken great effort at is trying to reduce what he believes is an epidemic of mass incarceration.

He has signed laws that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences, change these sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine vs. powdered cocaine. What do you make of that effort over the past eight years?

BILL MCCOLLUM: Well, I think he’s right to try to reduce the differences between crack and powder cocaine. I don’t have a problem with granting clemency on a case-by-case basis. As attorney general of Florida, that’s something that I did. I was part of the clemency board that met every month.

But I do believe in minimum mandatory sentences. I do believe in deterrence that is going to come out of a determinate sentencing. When I was on the Crime Subcommittee in Congress several years ago, we didn’t have that. And instead, we had judges that were widely varied in the kind of sentencing that they did. And the messaging was terrible.

And one of the reasons that we do have this lower crime rate today is because we have locked up a lot of the bad guys for long sentences, and we have seen fewer of them out on the street to commit those crimes.

I fear that we’re going back into a new cycle, where everybody is saying, hey, let’s turn everybody out, and you haven’t rehabilitated anybody in prison.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Wes Lowery, obviously, we’re coming to the end of the Obama administration. And the Trump administration has signaled at least in several of his potential appointees a different tide.

What do you think we’re likely to see in this next administration?

WESLEY LOWERY: Well, I certainly think we’re going to see a very different tenor and tone from the administration. We have already begun to see this in terms of how many of these issues are framed, right?

So while, for example, President Obama or Eric Holder was much more likely to be talking about something such as a police shooting or community distrust, President-elect Trump and his incoming attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have shown they are much more likely to talk about things such as supporting police officers, so-called war on police, and the idea of, you know, ridding things of violent crime.

I think very often, in our partisan political lens, we talk about either one of those things or the other one of those things, when, in reality, most police chiefs who you talk to will note that both of those things are things that deteriorate the relationships between police and communities. Right?

In the Trump administration, it is going to be fascinating to see what the posture of the DOJ is towards these issues, not just policing, but criminal justice broadly. In Jeff Sessions, you have an attorney general who is one of the people who on the Hill has prevented the criminal justice reform package that has been proposed by a bipartisan set of senators and congressmen from happening.

And so it is going to be very interesting to see what, if any federal leadership on — in terms of either walking back mandatory minimums, which has been a major focus of the Obama administration, issues of clemency, and then also issues of kind of data collection. It is going to be very interesting to see what, if at all is pursued by the Trump administration in those spaces.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Bill McCollum, last to you. What do you think the Trump administration will do in this regard?

BILL MCCOLLUM: Well, I like to think they are going to return to the policies that the Reagan and Bush administrations of the ’80s and early ’90s did.

And that was to look at examples like Boston’s policing, where they did community policing, and take examples and say, look to local governments, here’s some money, federal money. Go do it, like the police block grants that were given out years ago, not without some strings, but basically saying, we want you cops back out on the streets, walking those beats, instead of being afraid to do your job, which they are today.

And I would like to see and believe that they’re going to also focus on the black community and the Hispanic community and the minorities. That’s where I think President-elect Trump has said he’s going to do things.

And the best thing he can do is to address the black-on-black crime, Hispanic-upon-Hispanic crime, the gangs that are there, to try to prevent the crime in the first place and deter it, and then, of course, arresting those who really are the ones that are making the trouble.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Bill McCollum, Wesley Lowery, thank you both very much.

WESLEY LOWERY: Thank you.

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