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President Obama Commutes Sentences of Nonviolent Offenders

PHOTO: President Obama is expected to discuss his plans for criminal justice reform at a visit to Oklahoma's El Reno Federal Correctional Institution on July 17. He'll be the first president to visit a prison while in office. Photo courtesy Federal Bureau of Prisons.
PHOTO: President Obama is expected to discuss his plans for criminal justice reform at a visit to Oklahoma's El Reno Federal Correctional Institution on July 17. He'll be the first president to visit a prison while in office. Photo courtesy Federal Bureau of Prisons.
July 15, 2015

NEW YORK - President Obama on Thursday will become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. The visit is part of a major push for criminal justice reform that began earlier this week when the president commuted the sentences of 46 prisoners serving time for nonviolent crimes, including 14 sentenced to life.

Anthony Papa, manager of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance, once was imprisoned under New York's harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws. With more than 2 million people behind bars, Papa said, the United States has the largest prison population in the world.

"The system is overcrowded," he said, "full of nonviolent drug offenders given sentences of 15, 20, 25 years."

While there is bipartisan support in Washington for criminal justice reform, some Republicans have criticized the sentence commutations as a "publicity stunt." But others point to the high cost of keeping nonviolent offenders locked up when community-based drug treatment and rehabilitation programs cost less.

Since the administration announced its initiative last year, almost 7,000 inmates have filed petitions seeking commutations. Papa, who was granted clemency in 1997 while serving 15 years to life for a nonviolent drug conviction, said the president's action should serve as an example.

"Too many people are lingering in prison for nonviolent drug offenses that deserve second chances," he said, "and hopefully, governors of states will follow and grant some clemencies."

The Obama administration said it is committed to issuing more commutations for nonviolent offenders during the remainder of the president's term in office.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - NY