Thousands of nonviolent drug offenders serving time in federal prison could be eligible to apply for early release under new clemency guidelines announced Wednesday by the Justice Department.
Details of the initiative, which would give President Obama more options under which he could grant clemency to drug offenders serving long prison sentences, were announced by Deputy Attorney General James Cole.
Cole listed six factors the Justice Department will use to "prioritize clemency applications" as part of the administration's effort to address long mandatory minimum sentences meted out after the crack-fueled crime wave of the 1980s. Those mandatory minimums were revised under the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, designed to reduce the disparity between sentencing rules for crack and powder cocaine.
Inmates seeking clemency, he said, must meet the following criteria:
-They are currently serving a federal prison sentence that is longer than current mandatory sentences for the same offense.
-They are non-violent, low-level offenders without "significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels."
-They have served at least 10 years of their sentence.
-They do not have a "significant criminal history."
-They have demonstrated good conduct in prison.
-They have no history of violence before or during their current imprisonment.
"For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair, but it also must be perceived as being fair," Cole said in a statement. "Older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today's laws erode people's confidence in our criminal justice system, and I am confident that this initiative will go far to promote the most fundamental of American ideals - equal justice for all."
Long mandatory minimum drug sentences were revised under the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which was designed to reduce the disparity between sentencing rules for crack and powder cocaine. In comments Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder said the difference in prison terms being served by drug offenders sentenced before the act, and those sentenced after, is "simply not right."
The administration announced that Deborah Leff, acting senior counselor at the Justice Department's Access to Justice Initiative, will head new office overseeing the clemency program. The Access to Justice Initiative was established in 2010 to promote fairness in legal representation and sentencing "irrespective of wealth and status."
Cole said that in the interest of providing a "thorough and rapid review" of the expected wave of new clemency applications, he has asked lawyers throughout the Justice Department to help review new petitions.
Inmates, the administration said, will be notified in coming days about the expedited clemency program, and how to access pro bono lawyers through a working group called Clemency Project 2014. The group, formed after Cole asked lawyers to help with the clemency initiative, includes federal defenders, as well as representatives from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Bar Association.
While the move has been hailed by groups working for fairness and sentencing, and also additional changes to mandatory minimum drug sentences - including bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill - some prosecutors have expressed skepticism about the clemency initiative.
"Americans want to rest assured knowing that 10 years means 10 years, and life in prison means life in prison," says Scott Burns, head of the National District Attorneys Association. "Prosecutors' fears are that our low level of serious crime in America will begin to rise - and nobody will monitor the cost of re-arresting and re-prosecuting offenders when they commit new crimes."
An American journalist operating in eastern Ukraine has been kidnapped by pro-Russian gunmen, the separatists said Wednesday.
Simon Ostrovsky, working for Vice News, was seized at gunpoint early Tuesday by masked men in the restive eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk.
Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for the insurgents confirmed Wednesday that Ostrovsky was being held at the local branch of the Ukrainian security service, seized more than a week ago, according to The Associated Press.
"He's with us. He's fine," Khorosheva told the AP, who said the journalist was being held because he's "suspected of bad activities," which she refused to explain. She said insurgents were holding the journalist pending their own investigation.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. is "deeply concerned" about the reports.
"We condemn any such actions, and all recent hostage takings in eastern Ukraine, which directly violate commitments made in the Geneva joint statement," Psaki said.
The reports come in the same week as a visit by Vice President Joe Biden to Ukraine.
Black Prairie, a six-piece rock-infused bluegrass band that includes four members of The Decemberists, has been a mostly instrumental band for years, but on its fourth album, Fortune, just out yesterday, there's a whole lot of singing. The band has always had a good sense of humor and this video for "Let It Out," which features violinist Annalisa Tornfelt on vocals, will give you a good peak at their twisted ways. Black Prairie's driving force and humorist, Chris Funk, sent me a note explaining the evident fascination with taxidermy:
When you tour with people for a long time, after a while the stories start to run out. Though one day in the van Annalisa revealed that she in fact used to hunt squirrels with her friend Bethy in the woods. Not unusual for an Alaskan teenager I guess, however she then revealed they would make purses out of them and wear them to high school, even the bones in their hair to keep their buns up. And I thought smoking cloves while listening to The Smiths was edgy .... So it's not altogether too surprising that Annalisa came up with the loose concept of *shooting* (pun fully intended) our video in a working taxidermy shop at which point our director (Jason Roark) and his team (Ken Meyer, Kyle Eaton) ran with the story line and art direction. We were honored to have cameos from fellow Oregonians Michael Hurley (folk legend) and Claire Coffee (Grimm) take the time to enjoy the scent of salted animal hides and taxidermist glue.