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Attorney General Eric Holder urged the U.S. Sentencing Commission yesterday to reduce sentences for non violent drug offenders. The number of drug offenders in federal prison has swelled to almost 100,000 in the last three decades. Many of them are there under mandatory minimum sentences, which were created in the 1980s to combat the crack cocaine epidemic.
The changes proposed by the Obama administration focus on sentences for newly convicted offenders — but not for the thousands who are currently serving time. In January, the Obama administration granted clemency to eight non-violent drug offenders who were serving mandatory minimum sentences. Now, the Department of Justice is seeking to free many more who have already been incarcerated for years and even decades.
Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson hears two different views on the subject. First, from Scott Burns, former deputy drug czar under President George W. Bush, who is currently executive director of the National District Attorneys Association. He argues, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Crime is down in the United States significantly in the last 30 years… America’s prosecutors are shaking their heads and saying why now.”
Hobson then turns to Barbara Scrivner, an inmate serving a 30-year federal sentence for conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine. She is filing for clemency for a third time, after her first two requests were denied, in spite of letters of support from a judge, multiple U.S. attorneys in Oregon, politicians and the ACLU. She hopes it will work this time, but “I just can’t afford to get heartbroken again.” She has attempted suicide twice since being incarcerated.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. This week, Attorney General Eric Holder testified before the U.S. Sentencing Commission as part of an effort to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. The number of drug offenders in federal prison has swelled to almost 100,000, many of them under mandatory minimum sentences, which were created in the '80s to combat the crack cocaine epidemic.
We're going to hear two views on this subject now, starting with that of Scott Burns. He was deputy drug czar under President George W. Bush and is currently executive director of the National District Attorneys Association. Welcome.
SCOTT BURNS: Thank you for having me, Jeremy.
HOBSON: Well, you testified yesterday in front of the Sentencing Commission, saying that Attorney General Eric Holder's proposal to reduce these sentences for low-level drug offenders is not a good idea. Why is that?
BURNS: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Crime is down in the United States significantly over the last 30 years. Murders are down 50 percent. Every major category of crime, rape, robbery, burglary is down 30 to 40 percent. So, you know, America's prosecutors are shaking their head and saying why now?
HOBSON: Well, but you could say that crime is down for a number of reasons. Why do you point to this as the part of the success that should be continued?
BURNS: Well, if you look back 30 or 40 years, back to the days of Willie Horton when, you know, crack and crime were ravaging and decimating the major cities in this country, everyone screamed for something to happen. And America's law enforcement and prosecutors responded. And what we did was targeted that small percentage of Americans that absolutely insist on committing more crimes.
And legislatures across the country also responded, and we locked them up for a long time. And when bad people are locked up and not committing crime, people are safe to walk the streets again. And here we are now with the lowest crime rates that anybody can remember, and for some reason everybody in Washington is now saying, well, let's change that. You know, it really costs a lot of money. Maybe we can do something different.
HOBSON: But do you see the prison system as a place for rehabilitation or a place for punishment because many of these people who are in prison, especially if they're in there for 30 years for a drug offense, might say, look, I've been rehabilitated after five. I don't need to sit here for 30 more years.
BURNS: Well, the devil's in the detail. I mean, you have to look at each individual case, but the system works. And you can always find outrageous cases on the margin to try and make a point, but for the 10-million-plus felonies that state and local prosecutors handle every year, we do a pretty good job of helping those that want to rehabilitate and locking those up that continue to commit crime.
HOBSON: Scott Burns, what percentage of the prison population do you think is in there and should be given clemency?
BURNS: I mean, that's an impossible question. You'd have to look at the individual offenders. You'd have to look at their case history. But those things are all looked at by judges, by probation officers, by drug court officials before they're actually incarcerated on a case-by-case basis.
HOBSON: Scott Burns is former deputy director drug czar under President George W. Bush and executive director of the National District Attorneys Association. Scott, thanks so much.
BURNS: Thanks for having me.
HOBSON: And for another take on this, we're joined from a federal prison in Dublin, California, by Barbara Scrivner. She has served 20 years of a 30-year sentence for conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine and she is hoping to be released early. Barbara, thanks for calling in.
BARBARA SCRIVNER: Thank you very much for having me.
HOBSON: Well, what did the judge say when that sentence came down?
SCRIVNER: Well, he told me that - they gave me a two-point reduction for minimal participation, which was basically knowledge, and I knew it was going on and because I didn't cooperate with the government. But he said because his hands are tied, and he had to follow what the guidelines were, he was going to give me the low end, which was 30 years.
HOBSON: For conspiracy to manufacture meth, 30 years?
SCRIVNER: Yes, exactly.
HOBSON: Now, a year after you went into prison, you appealed your case, and you were denied. And then you tried to commit suicide.
SCRIVNER: I did. I didn't think it was going to be very easy for me to live life in prison for 30 years and I didn't want to do it.
HOBSON: And you tried for clemency again during the Bush administration. What happened then?
SCRIVNER: Well, when we filed it then - because I had written my judge when I had the suicide attempt, and he said, you know, he's really sorry about that. He wishes that there was something he could've - that he could do to help me. But again, he couldn't. But when I filed for clemency, he wrote a letter on my behalf. The United States attorney for the state of Oregon wrote a letter on my behalf.
So we believed that I would most likely get it because we were told the recommendations of your judge and the United States attorney, the pardon attorney's office follows. So we're thinking if the people that put me in prison are saying I shouldn't have this sentence, then I should be granted clemency.
HOBSON: But you didn't get it.
SCRIVNER: Well that was - I didn't get it. They denied it.
HOBSON: And what did they say why they denied it?
SCRIVNER: They say - they don't have to say. They just said it's denied.
HOBSON: And you tried again in 2009 when President Obama took office. Did that work out any better?
SCRIVNER: It did not, but I thought OK - I listened to Obama's speeches, and he was talking about prison reform and helping, you know, reduce the population. And I knew that I was just a low-level drug offender with a horrendous sentence. I had even more support. My judge still wrote a letter. Like three of the successive United States attorneys in Oregon wrote letters on my behalf, just reading my petition, saying yes, I got too much time.
A couple politicians wrote letters. The ACLU sponsored my petition. And I really thought again they're going to give it to me. There's no way they would say no. They want to get people out. You know, this is just - my sentence is just too huge. I really, really believed in my heart that it was going to happen. And again, it did not.
And I got very discouraged and defeated and thought what's the use? I cannot do this again anymore. And then I did try to commit suicide again.
HOBSON: And now you're trying again to get clemency. So why do you think it's going to be different this time?
SCRIVNER: Well, I had already had my heart set that I wasn't going to worry about clemency anymore. If my attorney wanted to file it, that would be fine. I just knew at this point in time I have four years left, and that's where I was trying to focus on. I couldn't focus on the possibility of maybe, maybe, maybe. But when eight people just got granted clemencies in January, I was like, oh, they are doing some.
And then James Cole made the statement that they're looking for people that are clemency-worthy, low-level drug offenders so they can reduce the population. And my heart got, you know, a little overwhelmed, thinking maybe now, maybe this is really it.
HOBSON: And when you say James Cole, by the way, you're talking about a deputy attorney general.
HOBSON: Well, do you have hope that you can get out before your sentence is up?
SCRIVNER: I want to say yes, but it's hard. So I kind of want to say no because I just can't afford to get heartbroken again. I can't afford to go there. I believe this that's going on now seems really positive, and just maybe I do just maybe think this could finally be it, and I can finally go home to my family.
HOBSON: That's Barbara Scrivner. She's an inmate in federal prison in Dublin, California. She has served 20 years of her 30-year drug sentence and is waiting to hear about whether she will be granted clemency. Barbara, thanks so much, and best of luck.
SCRIVNER: Thank you very much.
HOBSON: And we also spoke yesterday with Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. You can get a link to that interview at hereandnow.org. And please weigh in, your thoughts on this issue, at our website, hereandnow.org. We can also get a tweet from you @hereandnowradio. I'm @jeremyhobson. Robin is @hereandnowrobin. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.