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Criminal Justice Reform Advocates Say They're Anxious To See More Action From Biden

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Biden has pledged to overhaul the criminal justice system. During the campaign, Biden said he'd do this by shrinking the number of people in prison and imposing more consequences on bad police officers. Advocates say they're waiting for action that would back up that agenda. NPR's Carrie Johnson has more.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: President Biden says he's evolved on criminal justice since he helped pass harsh laws on crime and punishment in the 1990s. Here's Biden at a town hall with CNN in February.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: No one should go to jail for a drug offense. No one should go to jail for the use of a drug. They should go to drug rehabilitation.

JOHNSON: Biden is calling for prison sentences that are tailored to fit the individual crime. In one of its first moves, the new Justice Department rescinded a Trump-era memo that required prosecutors to bring the most serious charges that their evidence would support. Cynthia Roseberry of the ACLU says that's encouraging but only a first step.

CYNTHIA ROSEBERRY: We're absolutely anxious for more change to come from this administration on criminal justice reform.

JOHNSON: Congress is mostly focused on other priorities, but Roseberry says there's a lot more Biden and the DOJ can do with the stroke of a pen.

ROSEBERRY: For example, during the last administration, those people who came home on home confinement as a result of being vulnerable to COVID-19 were were ordered back once COVID dissipates.

JOHNSON: Twenty-three thousand people in federal prison won release that way during the pandemic. The head of the Bureau of Prisons recently told Congress only 21 of them violated their conditions of release, and only one committed a new crime. This week prisoner rights groups asked Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland to intervene, citing their comments about the need to reduce the prison population.

ROSEBERRY: We would hope that he would absolutely reverse that order for people who have been out, performing well on supervised release - just to allow them to stay home.

JOHNSON: DOJ had no comment on the new letter. Biden has proclaimed April a second chance month for people involved in the justice system. Roseberry says she also wants to see Biden use his sweeping power to grant clemency.

ROSEBERRY: You know, there's ending the death penalty, having a moratorium on the death penalty and commuting those death sentences.

JOHNSON: It's still early in the administration with only one Senate confirmed leader in place at the Justice Department. And in a few instances, the new administration moved in ways that seem to be in tension with some of Biden's campaign statements. Elizabeth Wydra is president of the Constitutional Accountability Center. In February, she was surprised to see Biden's acting solicitor general endorse a legal shield for police officers sued for wrongdoing, a concept called qualified immunity.

ELIZABETH WYDRA: It's an extremely important signal to the country about how serious the administration is about reforming qualified immunity, ensuring that there is accountability for police misconduct and ensuring that all enjoy equal protection of the laws.

JOHNSON: The House recently passed a police overhaul bill that would ban qualified immunity, and the administration has backed that legislation, named after George Floyd. A DOJ spokeswoman didn't explain the contradiction. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON HOPKINS' "LOST IN THOUGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.