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An inside look at the Obama administration’s criminal justice reforms

Top senators revealed a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill on Thursday that includes changes to sentencing guidelines for some offenders and the creation of reentry programs for newly released prisoners. The move comes as the Obama administration is pushing its own series of initiatives. Judy Woodruff talks to Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates for more on that effort.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    On Capitol Hill today, a group of top senators unveiled a bipartisan bill to reform the nation's criminal justice system.

    Among other things, the legislation would reduce prison sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders, and create programs to help offenders reenter society. The move comes at the same time the Obama administration is pushing a series of criminal justice initiatives.

    Spearheading that effort is Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who joins us now.

    Deputy Attorney General Yates, thank you for being with us.

  • SALLY YATES, Deputy Attorney General:

    Well, thank you for having me.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, tell us what the thrust of the administration's criminal justice reform efforts are. What are you trying to fix?

  • SALLY YATES:

    Well, we're trying to accomplish a number of things.

    First, with the sentencing reform bill, we're really trying to bring proportionality back to sentencing, and specifically for lower-level nonviolent drug offenders. And then with our Reentry Week this week, we're really trying to highlight the importance of assuring that those who are returning from prison have just those basic tools they need in order to be able to be successful.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, what are some examples of that? What are some things that they need that they aren't getting right now, most of them?

  • SALLY YATES:

    Well, just imagine right now that you're leaving prison. You may or may not have a family to go back to. Particularly if you were incarcerated a long way from where your family lives, your wife may have divorced you at this point, so you may or may not have a family to go back to.

    And you may or may not have had a chance to stay in touch with your children during this time as well. It's expensive for people to travel. So, you have got to find a place to live. Public housing is difficult. Some public housing operations will not allow convicted felons. Then you have got to find a job. And finding a job is really difficult at all right now, but just imagine if you have to add convicted felon to your resume.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, just to be clear, you're working just on prisoners in the federal system? Is that right?

  • SALLY YATES:

    Well, we're looking at both. We're trying to help both prisoners that are leaving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, but also working through our grant program with state facilities as well.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, it's a big job.

  • SALLY YATES:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    I mean, we're talking a lot of prisoners around the country.

  • SALLY YATES:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You said this week, I believe, our criminal justice system is not equipped to deal with what is fundamentally a health crisis.

    What did you mean by that?

  • SALLY YATES:

    Well, I was referring to mental health there.

    And there's one of the problems that our law enforcement officers have been encountering. There are a lot of people on the street right now that have serious mental health issues. Going back to the '70s, when many of our mental institutions were closed, unfortunately, states didn't pick up and provide the kind of community mental health care that's really needed.

    And that has just snowballed over the decades. And now we're in a situation where mentally ill people are encountering law enforcement and going into prisons and getting — ostensibly getting treatment there, but prisons really aren't equipped to be providing the kind of mental health treatment that most people need.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, how do you fix that? What do you do about it?

  • SALLY YATES:

    Well, there are a variety of things.

    With respect to mental health, one of the things that we're doing there is, first of all, trying to train our law enforcement officers in how to identify signs of mental illness.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    This is before these individuals are arrested or get in trouble in the first place?

  • SALLY YATES:

    Before they're even arrested, exactly, and to be able to divert them to mental health services, instead of necessarily going to prison.

    Then, even within our prisons, we're providing funding and training and trying, when we do have folks that are actually in the prisons, to make sure that we are providing the kind of mental health treatment that they need. But, really, diversion is the key here, out of the prison system to begin with.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Do you have a sense of what proportion, what percentage of prisoners today have mental health problems or other emotional, however you want to describe it, issues?

  • SALLY YATES:

    You know, there are varying estimates out there, and I think it's really hard to know what the true figures are, because some prisons will only count those people that are so mentally ill that they are a danger to themselves or others while they're in a prison setting.

    And that doesn't really necessarily capture the full scope of mental health issues.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Do you feel you can make progress? You mentioned working with police, with corrections officers. How do you make progress in that arena? Again, you're talking about individuals across the country in many different settings, local, state and federal.

  • SALLY YATES:

    Well, one of the things that we have done is started training crisis response teams for local law enforcement agencies.

    And that's a group of law enforcement officers within a police department that are trained to identify not only the signs of mental illness, but de-escalation strategies, so that when they encounter someone who is mentally ill, they can de-escalate the situation and take them to mental facilities.

    Now, we can't train every single law enforcement officer, but we can have teams that are available in our law enforcement all over the country. So, when someone's out there on the street and they encounter this individual, they can then call out for one of their crisis intervention teams.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We mentioned coming in today from the Hill a bipartisan senators announced this revised proposal, criminal reform proposal. What's the administration's take on that?

  • SALLY YATES:

    We are so encouraged by this.

    I haven't been in this town for very long, but one thing I have learned in the relatively short time that I have been here is, there is not much that has bipartisan support. And this has strong bipartisan support from both ends of the spectrum and in between.

    You know, the bill today now has 36 co-sponsors, split evenly with Democrats and Republicans. And I think that's just a reflection of the recognition that the time has come for us to recalibrate our drug sentencing for lower-level nonviolent drug offenders.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, you know, as I know you know, Deputy Attorney General Yates, that there are conservatives in the Senate and elsewhere who are saying, if you make a mistake, if you let someone out early who shouldn't have been let out early, they can go out and commit a violent crime, they may be susceptible to doing that.

    What's the answer for people with that concern?

  • SALLY YATES:

    And that's why this legislation is really targeted at the nonviolent drug offenders.

    But, look, any legislation is compromise. There are some who would like this to go a lot farther. There are others who it goes too far. We have worked really hard with folks on the Hill to try to find the right balance here.

    Now, what we're trying to do is to make sure that the punishment fits the crime and to ensure that we are protecting the public and public safety comes first, but that we're not keeping people in prison for longer than necessary for public safety purposes, because that's not fair either.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    How do you assure — finally, how do you assure the American people that this is the right thing to do? Because there are still people who are wary of how they deal with, how they work alongside individuals who have done time.

  • SALLY YATES:

    Right.

    Well, I can tell you, I'm a career prosecutor. I have been doing this for 27 years. And my focus in all of this is first on public safety, but also on ensuring the fairness of the criminal justice system. That's absolutely essential for the public to have confidence in their criminal justice system.

    And when individuals have paid their debt to society, and they have come out into our communities, I think all of us, not just the Justice Department, but all of us have a responsibility to give them just a fair shot at being able to live the kind of lives we have.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Sally Yates, the deputy attorney general of the United States, thank you very much.

  • SALLY YATES:

    My pleasure.

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