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Obama Shortens Sentences For 79 Federal Prisoners


President Obama has shortened the sentences of 79 more federal prisoners. That means that up until now, the president has granted clemency to a total of more than a thousand people who were found guilty of nonviolent drug crimes. Many of those people had expected to spend the rest of their lives behind bars. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The top lawyer in the White House says President Obama set out to reinvigorate the clemency power. And Neil Eggleston says they're not finished yet.

NEIL EGGLESTON: You know, we have too much left in this administration before the inauguration of the next president. And I think you can anticipate that we will keep going until the end.

JOHNSON: The focus is on drug criminals who would receive far shorter sentences if they committed the same crimes today. Already this White House has shortened the prison terms of about 1,000 people more than the last 11 presidents combined. Sally Yates is deputy U.S. attorney general.

SALLY YATES: This is more than just a statistic. There are a thousand lives behind that number.

JOHNSON: I'm one of those lives is Shauna Barry-Scott, convicted of selling crack cocaine. Last year, President Obama cut her 20-year prisons sentence in half, an experience she describes as a whirlwind.

SHAUNA BARRY-SCOTT: Shock, overwhelming joy, fear of the unknown and a little sadness, too, for the others left behind.

JOHNSON: Barry-Scott recently graduated with honors from a program that helps inmates re-enter society. This holiday season, she says, she's working to rebuild relationships with the family she left behind.

BARRY-SCOTT: I have four adult children, and I am bonding with the new grandchildren who were born while I was away. We are still in the process of healing.

JOHNSON: With hundreds if not thousands of requests pending, prisoner advocates are pushing the White House to do a lot more. But government officials cast doubt on the idea they would do one big mass clemency grant for drug criminals before President Obama leaves office. That's because they prefer to assess how the release of each individual prisoner might impact public safety. For deputy attorney general Yates, the clemency process is a natural extension of her job - making sure the justice system is fair.

YATES: The mission of the Justice Department not only supports but demands that we do everything in our power to ensure that our criminal justice system operates fairly.

JOHNSON: Any cases Obama doesn't decide on will be waiting for the new president, but there's little sign President-elect Donald Trump who campaigned on a tough law and order message will be inclined to be lenient toward prison inmates. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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