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News Brief: Justice Bill, Migrants' Release, Pyongyang Cheats Sanctions


The Senate passed a criminal justice overhaul last night.


Yeah, this is called the First Step Act, and it passed by a vote of 87-12 after years of negotiating. It aims to reduce some sentences and also to cut down on repeat offenders. And it had the support of conservative and liberal groups concerned about the size of the nation's prison population, which has ballooned to more than 2 million people. This is Florida's Democratic Senator Bill Nelson.


BILL NELSON: This country of ours incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. The federal prison population has grown by over 700 percent since 1980.

GREENE: Now, we should clarify that this legislation would only apply to federal prisoners, who make up less than 10 percent of the prison population.

KING: NPR's Ayesha Rascoe has been following this story very closely. Good morning, Ayesha.


KING: So what's in this bill?

RASCOE: Well, as you noted, this applies to federal offenses. It would reduce sentences for certain drug crimes, including ending automatic life sentences under this three-strike penalty. It would also allow prisoners who were sentenced before Congress lowered the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine to petition the court to change their sentence based on the updated law - so basically, making a law that passed several years ago retroactive. And it would also provide incentives for prisoners to participate in training and rehabilitation programs that would help prepare them for life after incarceration.

KING: So there's a lot there. Ayesha, it seems worth noting that there is a long history in this country of talking about overhauling criminal justice.

RASCOE: It - it has been something that advocates have wanted for a really long time. And there's really been this evolution of thinking over the years about the way we deal with crime. You had advocates on the left. But then you had all these conservative activists, like the Koch brothers and The Heritage Foundation and some evangelicals, come out in favor of changing the way the U.S. deals with prisoners because they argue that giving out these really long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes has led to really big, massive prison - massive prison populations and costs a lot of taxpayer dollars but hasn't really cut down on crime.

There was some hope that they would be able to do something on this during the Obama administration, especially in that last year. But it just didn't happen. And so there was this agreement between Republicans and Democrats that something needed to be done. But it wasn't clear how we would - or how they would get there.

KING: So how did they get there? What made the difference this time around?

RASCOE: So this time, advocates had a supporter in the White House in Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and adviser. Kushner's father served time in prison, so this was - in federal prison. So this was personal for him. And he was able to make the case to the president that addressing the criminal justice system in this way would - could be done and still be, quote, "tough on crime."

So Trump came out in favor of this bill, and - Senate bill - in November. And without his support, you probably wouldn't have been able to get those Republicans who were concerned about being painted as soft on crime off of the sidelines and backing the bill.

KING: So just quickly, is this a win for President Trump?

RASCOE: It is a win for President Trump. It's something that he put - you know, that he threw his support behind and that he has put pressure on the Senate to vote on this and to get this done.

KING: NPR's Ayesha Rascoe. Thanks, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Thank you.


KING: Some of the thousands of migrant children detained along the U.S.-Mexico border may get to spend Christmas with their families this year.

GREENE: Yeah. Let's remember last week, we reported that government-contracted shelters around the country were holding nearly 15,000 migrant children. We also found that the vetting of sponsor families created this bottleneck that was resulting in crowding at these shelters. Well, now the Trump administration is changing its policies to speed up the release of these children.

KING: NPR's John Burnett is on the line from Austin, Texas. He's been breaking news on this story. Good morning, John.


KING: So what exactly is changing now?

BURNETT: Well, the Department of Health and Human Services, which is in charge of the care of the migrant kids, admits that a policy that was supposed to protect these children has just gone too far. The agency had changed the way it vets potential sponsors who stepped forward to receive a migrant child.

These sponsors are usually adult family members who already live in the U.S., and the child will go to live with them during the time their asylum case is pending in immigration court. So back in June, HHS started doing intensive background checks on everyone who lives in the household. You know, that could be 13 people.

KING: Yeah.

BURNETT: ...Required fingerprinting and a criminal background check to see if anybody was a child molester or - or worse, and that took weeks and weeks. Meanwhile, the kids were languishing in these growing shelters. And child welfare experts say detention is bad for kids both mentally and physically. So what the changes are, now these child safety officials will go back to just vetting the sponsor and not everybody in the household.

KING: Making the process a lot easier. You've reported that there are around 15,000 kids in U.S. custody.


KING: How many of them will this affect?

BURNETT: Well, I spoke with Lynn Johnson yesterday. She's the HHS assistant secretary of administration for children and families. And she said she's hopeful that 2,000 children who are now in custody could be released in the next four to five days to go join a loved one. These are kids who are waiting to be released after their sponsors have already passed the vetting.

It'll certainly take longer for all the rest, and we'll be watching. But Johnson was blunt. She said in an interview the extra vetting hadn't paid off. All it accomplished was to delay the children's release from federal custody.

LYNN JOHNSON: And we're finding that it's not adding anything to the protection or the safety for these children. The children should be home with their parents. The government makes lousy parents.

KING: Lousy parents. John, last week you reported on a tent city in west Texas that was holding a bunch of these kids. And it sounded like a pretty terrible situation. There was a lot of overcrowding. Everyone agreed it was kind of a mess.


KING: What's going to happen to the kids there?

BURNETT: Well, that shelter out in Tornillo, Texas, has 2,800 kids. And as I reported, the operators are concerned they're going to run out of bed space any week now.

KING: Yeah.

BURNETT: A source familiar with the operation of the camp told me their contract runs out in two weeks. He said the nonprofit handles emergency response to hurricanes all over the Gulf South. But this deployment for these kids has exhausted the staff physically and emotionally. Most of these kids are teenage boys from Central America who crossed the Southwest border without a parent. And it was meant just as an emergency shelter, not as a permanent children's residential center out in the desert. And they would like to shut it down as soon as possible.

KING: All right, so what happens - just quickly - in the immediate term?

BURNETT: Well, the relaxation of screening of the sponsors goes into effect right now. And the assistant secretary says she's hopeful that the population of kids, which has doubled since March, will now start to drop.

JOHNSON: I do hope this helps us reduce some of the numbers of children that are being kept in shelters who could be safely at home.

BURNETT: And so some of these migrant kids, at least, should be released to their family by Christmas.

KING: That's great news for some of those kids. NPR's John Burnett. Thanks so much, John.

BURNETT: My pleasure.


KING: North Korea is under heavy sanctions. But scientific collaboration may be helping North Korea evade them.

GREENE: I mean, just think about this. This is a country, North Korea, that is subject to a global blockade because of its nuclear program. And still, it managed to test a nuclear device last year that was larger than any tested before.

And it tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that was capable of reaching the United States. And there's a new study that has been shared exclusively with NPR shedding some light on how North Korea may be developing all this technology.

KING: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel took a look at that study - a close look at that study. He's with me now in studio. Geoff, what did this study find?

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: So basically, this study was looking at scientific collaboration. So scientists all over the world, they collaborate with each other. They write papers. And what this study did was it looked at 1,300 papers with North Korean authors. And the Middlebury Institute of International Studies did - that did this, they analyzed those papers. And they found some potentially troubling subject matters.

KING: Troubling subject matter, like what?

BRUMFIEL: So it's important to remember North Korea's under sanctions not just as punishment but because we're actively trying to stop it from developing further weapons technology. So some of these papers are about things like mathematical modeling that could be applied to missiles or special materials that you might use in enriching uranium, things like that.

You know, I should say that those are collaborations mainly with Chinese researchers. Western researchers are pretty heavily vetted, typically. So, you know, there are U.S. researchers. But they are put through scrutiny, but not everyone is. So overall, this study found about 100 papers of concern. That's the way they termed it, meaning they need a closer look.

KING: How has North Korea kind of gotten away with this?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, I mean how are they doing this...

KING: Right.

BRUMFIEL: ...In plain sight, right? So I actually brought one of the papers with me. It's got the very catchy title, "Active Steering Control Strategy For Articulated Vehicles."


BRUMFIEL: And this is about basically technology for steering trucks. And it's - basically allows you to steer multiple wheels in the truck. It feels pretty innocent, reading the paper. There's a lot of math in here that I don't understand. And they claim it's going to, you know, help potentially make trucks safer on the road. But the thing is, this stuff only works on very, very heavy trucks. It's not commercially practical.

And so where is it used? It happens to be used on the trucks North Korea wants to carry its big ICBMs. And so it's thought that this might be part of North Korea's effort to learn how to build these trucks because they imported a few from China before they got caught. And they need more.

KING: So briefly, for all the talk of denuclearization, I mean, we've seen evidence, reports in recent weeks, about North Korea building missile bases, now this. Doesn't look like denuclearization.

BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean, I should say - right? - that there's been talk of denuclearization, but there's not actually a plan.

KING: Yeah.

BRUMFIEL: There's no agreement between the U.S. and North Korea. North Korea wants sanctions lifted somewhat. The U.S. wants denuclearization now. And really, until there is a better agreement, North Korea's going to live its best North Korean life, man. It's going to be out there doing what it needs to do, getting the technologies it needs, evading sanctions. And that's what we should expect.

KING: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks so much, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THRUPENCE'S "FOREST ON THE SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.