Beyond the county: Russia fires missles into Syria, CA Gov. signs climate change bill
Russian warships fire cruise missiles into Syria
DAMASCUS, Syria — Russian warships in the Caspian Sea fired cruise missiles Wednesday as Syrian government troops launched a ground offensive in central Syria in the first major combined air-and-ground assault since Moscow began its military campaign in the country last week.
The missiles flew nearly 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) over Iran and Iraq and struck Raqqa and Aleppo provinces in the north and Idlib province in the northwest, Russian officials said. The Islamic State group has strongholds in Raqqa and Aleppo, while the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front has a strong presence in Idlib.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Russia was continuing to strike targets other than Islamic State militants, adding that he was concerned about the Syrian ground offensive backed by Moscow’s airpower.
The latest developments came a week after Russia began its airstrikes in Syria, its longtime ally, on Sept. 30, and added a new dimension to the complex war that has torn the Mideast country apart since 2011.
A Syrian official and activists said government troops pushed into areas in the central province of Hama and south of Idlib in the boldest multipronged attack on rebel-held areas, benefiting from the Russian air cover. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Moscow has mainly targeted central and northwestern Syria, strategic regions that are the gateway to President Bashar Assad’s strongholds in Damascus, and along the Mediterranean coast where Russia has a naval base.
The Russian airstrikes strikes appear to have emboldened Syrian troops to launch the ground push after a string of setbacks in northwestern Syria in recent months.
The Islamic State group is not present in the areas where the ground fighting is underway.
The offensive in central Syria and the ensuing clashes with militants, including al-Qaida’s Syrian branch known as the Nusra Front, was the first major ground fighting since the Russian campaign began.
In televised remarks to President Vladimir Putin, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said 26 missile strikes were carried out from four warships in the Caspian. Shoigu insisted the operation destroyed all the targets and did not launch any strikes upon civilian areas.
Andrei Kartapolov of the Russian General Staff told Russian news agencies that Russia had planned the missile strikes from the warships so that they would fly “over unpopulated areas.” Shoigu also said Russia has carried out 112 airstrikes on IS positions since Sept. 30.
Activists and rebels say the targets have included Western-backed fighters and other groups opposed to Assad’s government.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a government offensive began on four fronts early Wednesday in Idlib and neighboring Hama provinces in what the group’s director Rami Abdurrahman described as “the most intense fighting in months.”
In Syria, the leader of a U.S.-backed rebel group, Tajammu Alezzah confirmed the ground offensive in a text message to The Associated Press, saying Russian and Iranian soldiers were involved in the operation. Russian officials deny sending any ground troops to the battlefield.
Maj. Jamil al-Saleh said the offensive, accompanied by air cover and shelling, came from three fronts, including Latamneh, north of Hama province where his group is based, and Kfar Zeita to the north. The offensive targeted the rural areas of Hama and Idlib that are almost totally controlled by rebel groups, he said.
Activist Ahmad al-Ahmad, who is in Idlib, said government troops “heavily” shelled central areas after rebels attacked an army post and destroyed a tank. He said the government advance covered an area of over 16 kilometers (10 miles), and was a coordinated multipronged attack, the boldest push in the area by the government in months. The rebels repulsed back government troops, al-Ahmad said.
The Observatory, which has a network of activists in Syria, said the main launching point for government forces was the town of Morek on a highway that links Damascus with Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its former commercial center. Rebels have controlled areas on the highway since 2012.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said rebels were able to destroy two tanks and an armored personnel carrier in northern parts of Hama province near Idlib. Video on social media by rebel fighters showed government tanks burning, apparently after being hit by U.S.-made TOW missiles.
The Observatory said 37 Russian air raids hit on Wednesday alone.
Two helicopters were seen flying low in Morek, but escaped militant fire, the Observatory said. It was not immediately clear if the pilots were Russians or Syrians, and Assad’s air force has Russian-made helicopters.
Although the Islamic State has no presence in the areas hit by airstrikes Wednesday, the Nusra Front is active in central and northern parts of the country — as are the Western-backed rebels. Russian officials have said the Nusra Front is among the groups it is targeting.
At a news conference in Rome, Carter said the U.S.-led coalition that also is conducting airstrikes in Syria has not agreed to cooperate with Russia in the fight against the Islamic State, and no collaboration is possible as long as Moscow continues to strike other targets.
He said the U.S. will conduct basic, technical talks with Russia about efforts to ensure that flights over Syria are conducted safely, and, “That’s it.”
Washington is not prepared to cooperate with a strategy of Russia’s that is “tragically flawed,” he said.
“They continue to hit targets that are not ISIL,” Carter said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group. “We believe that is a fundamental mistake.”
Since September 2014, the coalition has been hitting Islamic State positions mostly in northern and eastern parts of Syria, as well as in Iraq.
In Turkey, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu renewed criticism of Russia’s airstrikes, insisting they were mainly targeting the moderate Syrian opposition and therefore helping strengthen IS.
He called on Moscow to respect Turkey’s airspace, saying the country would not “make any concessions” on matters concerning its border security.
Russian warplanes violated Turkey’s borders on two separate occasions over the weekend, drawing strong protests from Turkey’s NATO allies. Turkey scrambled F-16s in response and also summoned the Russian ambassador to lodge protests.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said it had proposed a meeting between Turkish and Russian military officials in Ankara on avoiding Russian infringements of its airspace.
Syrian state TV quoted an unidentified Syrian military official as saying that Russian warplanes attacked Islamic State group positions in the towns of Al-Bab and Deir Hafer in Aleppo province.
Russia’s entry into the crowded and sometimes uncoordinated air wars in Syria is making the U.S. increasingly nervous, reflecting concern at the Pentagon and in Europe about the risk of accidents or unintended conflict.
— Associated Press
Congressional Budget Office: Budget deficit drops to $435B
WASHINGTON — Congressional budget analysts said Wednesday that the federal government ran a deficit of $435 billion in the just-completed budget year, the smallest deficit since 2007 and well below the record shortfalls of President Barack Obama’s first term.
The Congressional Budget Office report says it’s the sixth consecutive drop in a row for the deficit, when measured against the size of the economy, since the $1.4 trillion deficit of Obama’s first term.
The improved deficit figures come as Washington is grappling with the need to increase the government’s borrowing cap in early November. The White House and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are also seeking a separate agreement on a budget to keep the government open past a Dec. 11 deadline.
During Obama’s first term, the deficit was greater than $1 trillion for four years in a row in the wake of the Wall Street bailout, a huge stock market drop and a major recession.
The budget office does nonpartisan analysis for Congress; the official government estimate from the White House budget office and Treasury Department typically is released in mid-October.
The stronger figures represent 8 percent growth in tax revenues, led by 10 percent growth in individual income taxes. Spending grew more slowly, though the cost of health insurance subsidies through exchanges established by the Affordable Care Act almost doubled, to $27 billion.
CBO expects the deficit’s downward trend to continue for a couple of more years but says long-term trends, driven by the continuing retirement of the baby Boom generation and its effect on benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security, will likely cause an eventual fiscal crisis.
Two attempts by Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to negotiate a sweeping deficit-cutting package ended in failure after Boehner pulled out of the talks. Now, Obama is refusing to offer concessions in exchange for increasing the government’s $18.1 trillion borrowing cap. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has warned Congress to act by Nov. 5 to avoid a first-ever default, though an analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank in Washington says the absolute latest deadline will fall between Nov. 10-19.
In 2011, after Republicans reclaimed the House — and before his re-election — Obama conceded $2.1 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years as part of a deal with Boehner to lift the debt cap and avert a financial crisis. Since then, he’s refused to offer more cuts as a condition for increasing the debt limit and Republicans have reluctantly gone along.
Talks on a spending package that would ease automatic cuts to agency budgets, known as sequestration, imposed by the 2011 deal and replace them with savings elsewhere in the budget have just started. Obama has vowed to veto legislation that doesn’t lift those spending “caps” but many House GOP conservatives are insisting on retaining them and being more confrontational with Obama under the incoming House leadership team. Boehner announced his resignation at month’s end under pressure from tea party hardliners.
“Long term demographic trends and compounding interest on the debt demand that Congress work together to place America on a more fiscally sustainable path forward,’ said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland. “This begins with reaching a budget agreement this month to replace the harmful sequester with a more responsible strategy for deficit reduction.”
— Associated Press
Trio wins Nobel Prize for mapping how cells fix DNA damage
STOCKHOLM — Tomas Lindahl was eating his breakfast in England on Wednesday when the call came — ostensibly, from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. It occurred to him that this might be a hoax, but then the caller started speaking Swedish.
It was no joke: Lindahl and two others had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for pioneering studies into the way our bodies repair damage to DNA.
“Their work has provided fundamental knowledge of how a living cell functions” and is used in developing new cancer treatments, the academy said.
Lindahl, who is Swedish, was honored along with American Paul Modrich and U.S.-Turkish scientist Aziz Sancar for research done in the 1970s and ‘80s.
The men “really laid the foundations for the whole field” of DNA repair, said Alan Ashworth, president of the cancer center at the University of California, San Francisco. “These really are the fathers of the field.”
Lindahl, 77, is an emeritus group leader at the Francis Crick Institute and Emeritus director of Cancer Research UK at Clare Hall Laboratory in Britain.
Modrich, 69, is an investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute and professor at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina.
Sancar, also 69, is a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He is the second Turk to win a Nobel Prize, after novelist Orhan Pamuk was awarded the literature prize in 2006.
Sancar comes from a family of farmers with eight children; neither parent received an education but all the children are university graduates, Sancar told Haber Turk television.
He told The Associated Press that he thought the prize would be very important for Turkey.
“Young Turkish scientists need a role model showing that they can accomplish important contributions to science,” he said.
Lindahl told reporters at his laboratory near London that the prize is “a great honor and a fantastic way of winding up my career.”
Modrich, on vacation in New Hampshire, said he found out about his prize when a colleague emailed congratulations.
“I never quite put our work in this class, actually,” Modrich told the AP. “It’s nice to know other people put it in that class.”
The prize is worth 8 million Swedish kronor (about $960,000).
Working separately, the laureates broke new ground by mapping and explaining several of the ways a cell repairs its DNA, the molecule that contains our genes. DNA sustains damage in multiple ways, such as when it is copied as cells divide or in response to chemicals or ultraviolet rays from the sun.
DNA was thought to be a stable until the 1970s, when Lindahl showed that it gets damaged so often that it seemed human life would be impossible. He realized that there must a repair mechanism, opening a new field of research, the academy said.
Working at Yale University, Sancar mapped the mechanism that cells use to repair UV-damaged DNA. Modrich showed how the cell corrects errors when DNA is replicated during cell division.
Some research into developing new cancer drugs is based on the idea of sabotaging the DNA repair that keeps cancer cells alive. One drug designed to do that is already used to treat advanced ovarian cancer, and many others are being studied, Ashworth said.
Rodney Rothstein, who studies DNA repair at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York, said the Nobel award shows the importance of basic research.
The award will be handed out along with the other Nobel Prizes on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.
This year’s medicine prize went to three scientists from Japan, the U.S. and China who discovered drugs to fight malaria and other tropical diseases. Japanese and Canadian scientists won the physics prize for discovering that tiny particles called neutrinos have mass.
The Nobel announcements continue with literature on Thursday, the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday and the economics award on Monday.
— Associated Press
California governor signs aggressive climate change bill
LOS ANGELES — California Gov. Jerry Brown signed an ambitious climate change bill on Wednesday, aiming to increase the state’s use of renewable electricity to 50 percent and make existing buildings twice as energy-efficient by 2030.
“The goal is clear, and California is in the forefront,” Brown said at a signing ceremony at the hilltop Griffith Observatory, where a hazy downtown Los Angeles provided the backdrop.
Brown tried for an even stronger measure that would have also directed state regulators to enforce a 50 percent drop in petroleum use in the next 15 years, but oil interests defeated that part of the package.
He characterized the loss as a short-term setback, and insisted that the world needs to wean itself off fossil fuels as quickly as possible.
“What has been the source of our prosperity now becomes the source of our ultimate destruction, if we don’t get off it. And that is so difficult,” Brown said.
The Legislature approved the watered-down SB350 in the final hours of the legislative session on Sept. 11.
The measure does not specify how California will achieve these far-reaching goals, deferring the details to the state’s Air Resources Board, Energy Commission and Public Utilities Commission. The boards’ members are mostly appointed by the governor and have broad influence over the state’s economic life.
Lawmakers blamed a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign by oil companies, which raised fears of job losses, for defeating the petroleum reduction requirement.
Both houses are controlled by Democrats, but Brown accused Republicans of failing to take action to slow global warming. He recalled that Ronald Reagan was California’s governor when the state created the Air Resources Board in response to the smog in Los Angeles, and that President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act.
“That was a time when Republicans really got it. We hope they are going to come back to the good old days of Reagan and Nixon, when people cared about clean air and clean water,” he said.
Brown, a Democrat, began the year with a vow to push the most aggressive greenhouse-gas emissions benchmark in North America through the Legislature.
His goal builds on landmark legislation signed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, which established the first U.S. program to cap and trade emissions as a way to reduce pollutants to 1990 levels by 2020.
That program, second only to the European Union’s in size, imposes extra costs on polluting businesses, and has kept the state on track to get a third of its electricity from renewable sources in five more years.
Brown took his campaign around the world, even meeting with the pope in July. But he lost a key political battle among moderate Democrats in Sacramento amid intense lobbying by the oil industry and California’s utilities.
Some lawmakers were willing to accept forced cuts in petroleum use if the Legislature could have more power over the Air Resources Board, which has been implementing the greenhouse gas emissions law.
But Brown refused to give up what he sees as his executive authority.
Brown said cleaner-running cars and energy-efficient appliances will improve the environment, but he warned that the world’s coming transition from carbon-producing fuels to solar, wind and other renewable energies will be difficult.
“I never want to minimize the task ahead,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to come overnight. There is no quick, one thing you can do.”
— Associated Press
Clinton subject to hack attempts from China, Korea, Germany
WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton’s private email server, which stored some 55,000 pages of emails from her time as secretary of state, was the subject of attempted cyberattacks originating in China, South Korea and Germany after she left office in early 2013, according to a congressional document obtained by The Associated Press.
While the attempts were apparently blocked by a “threat monitoring” product that Clinton’s employees connected to her network in October 2013, there was a period of more than three months from June to October 2013 when that protection had not been installed, according to a letter from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. That means her server was possibly vulnerable to cyberattacks during that time.
Johnson’s letter to Victor Nappe, CEO of SECNAP, the company that provided the threat monitoring product, seeks a host of documents relating to the company’s work on Clinton’s server and the nature of the cyber intrusions detected. Johnson’s committee is investigating Clinton’s email arrangement.
Clinton has not said what, if any, firewall or threat protection was used on her email server before June 2013, including the time she was secretary of state from 2009 to 2013 and the server was kept in her home in the New York City suburbs.
A February 2014 email from SECNAP reported that malicious software based in China “was found running an attack against” Clinton’s server. In total, Senate investigators have found records describing three such attempts linked to China, one based in Germany and one originating in South Korea. The attacks occurred in 2013 and 2014. The letter describes four attacks, but investigators have since found records about a fifth, officials who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly said.
It was not immediately clear whether the attempted intrusions into Clinton’s server were serious espionage threats or the sort of nuisance attacks that hit computer servers the world over. But the new revelations underscore the extent to which any private email server is a target, raising further questions about Clinton’s decision to undertake sensitive government business over private email stored on a homemade system.
Any hackers who got access to her server in 2013 or 2014 could have stolen a trove of sensitive email traffic involving the foreign relations of the United States. Thousands of Clinton emails made public under the Freedom of Information Act have been heavily redacted for national security and other reasons.
Clinton “essentially circumvented millions of dollars’ worth of cybersecurity investment that the federal government puts within the State Department,” said Justin Harvey, chief security officer of Fidelis Cybersecurity.
“She wouldn’t have had the infrastructure to detect or respond to cyber attacks from a nation-state,” he said. “Those attacks are incredibly sophisticated, and very hard to detect and contain. And if you have a private server, it’s very likely that you would be compromised.”
A spokesman for the Clinton campaign did not answer detailed questions from The Associated Press about the cyber intrusions. Instead, spokesman Brian Fallon attacked Johnson by linking him to the House Benghazi committee inquiry, which the campaign dismissed in a recent media ad as politically motivated.
“Ron Johnson is ripping a page from the House Benghazi Committee’s playbook and mounting his own, taxpayer-funded sham of an investigation with the sole purpose of attacking Hillary Clinton politically,” campaign spokesman Fallon said by email. “The Justice Department is already conducting a review concerning the security of her server equipment, and Ron Johnson has no business interfering with it for his own partisan ends.”
The FBI is investigating whether national security was compromised by Clinton’s email arrangement.
In June 2013, after Clinton had left office, the server was moved from her Chappaqua, New York, home to a data center in northern New Jersey, where it was maintained by a Denver technology company, Platte River Networks, records show.
In June 2013, Johnson’s letter says, Platte River hired SECNAP Network Security Corp. to use a product called CloudJacket SMB, which is designed to block network access by “even the most determined hackers,” according to company literature. But the product was not up and running until October, according to Johnson’s letter, raising questions about how vulnerable Clinton’s server was during the interim.
SECNAP is not a well-known computer security provider. The company’s website and promotional literature describe CloudJacket as a monitoring system designed to counter unauthorized intrusions and monitor threats around the clock. Corporate documents show SECNAP has been in existence since at least 2002, selling computer spam filter and firewall products.
A SECNAP representative declined to comment, citing company policy.
The AP reported last month that Russia-linked hackers sent Clinton emails in 2011 — when she was still secretary of state — loaded with malware that could have exposed her computer if she opened the attachments. It is not known if she did.
The attacks Johnson mentions in his letter are different, according to government officials familiar with them. They were probing Clinton’s server directly, not through email.
— Associated Press
Senate OKs massive defense bill, sends measure to Obama
WASHINGTON — Congress on Wednesday sent President Barack Obama a sweeping $612 billion defense policy bill that he has threatened to veto over an ongoing battle between Democrats and Republicans about government spending.
The Senate voted to approve the measure 70 to 27.
If Obama vetoes the defense bill, it would be only the fifth time that has happened in the past half-century. The bipartisan measure has become law every year for more than 50 years.
The House passed the bill last week, 269 to 151, with enough Democratic votes to sustain a presidential veto.
Obama says he’ll veto it because while it contains all the money he requested, he doesn’t like the way Congress did it. The bill increases defense spending by padding a separate war-fighting account with an extra $38 billion. Congress didn’t increase money for domestic agencies too as the president wants.
If the veto is sustained, Congress would be forced to revise the bill or try to settle the larger budget dispute.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the president’s desire to veto the bill is “outrageous” in the light of national security threats.
“I wish I could say it surprised me that President Obama might — for the sake of unrelated partisan games — actually contemplate vetoing a bipartisan defense bill that contains the level of funding authorization he asked for,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “I’m calling on him not to, especially in times like these.”
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it was a good bill. He cited 60 provisions aimed at helping streamline defense acquisitions. He said other parts of the bill would help the Defense Department keep pace with changing technology, combat cyberattacks and provides key funding for the war in Afghanistan, the fight against Islamic State militants and Ukraine forces fighting Russian-backed rebels.
But he said he could not support it because it increases the war-fighting account, raising defense spending by doing an end-run around the spending caps.
Adding funds to the account for Overseas Contingency Operations complicates defense spending, he said. It does not provide funds for many of the domestic agencies, such as the FBI, Coast Guard, Justice Department, because they remain subject to the spending caps.
“Defense budgeting needs to be based on our long-term military strategy,” he said. “A one year plus-up” to the special account does not provide the Pentagon “with the certainty and stability it needs when building its five-year budget.”
After the vote, House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement pressuring Obama to sign the bill.
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called a news conference to try to convince Obama to sign it.
“I continue to hope that the president just won’t veto it — that there will be sufficient pressures on him that he won’t veto,” McCain said.
Thornberry said he too hoped the president would reconsider his veto, especially in light of the strong votes of support in both chambers.
“There has been a total of four vetoes in the past 53 years … every one of them were because of something that was in the bill, not because of something that was outside the bill, which is the thing that the president is complaining about today,” Thornberry said.
But White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday that the bill makes use of a “funding gimmick that some Republicans have called a slush fund, to try to provide for the basic national security of the United States in a way that the president and commander-in-chief finds grossly irresponsible.” Obama also is upset about provisions in the bill that would make it harder for him to transfer suspected terror detainees out of the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as part of his plan to close it before he leaves office.
Among other things, this year’s bill provides:
—a 1.3 percent pay increase to service members and a new retirement option for troops;
—authorizes lethal assistance to Ukraine forces fighting Russian-backed rebels;
—extends the ban on torture to the CIA;
—authorizes the president’s request of $715 million to help Iraqi forces fight Islamic State militants; and
—authorizes $600 million for the beleaguered U.S.-led program to train and equip moderate elements of the Syrian opposition force, but requires the defense secretary to get congressional approval each time he wants to use money for the program.
— Associated Press
Senators want drilling ban on outer continental shelf
LOS ANGELES — A group of Democratic senators wants to permanently ban drilling off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington.
The lawmakers announced Wednesday that they’ll submit a bill to block federal leases for exploring, developing or producing oil or natural gas on the outer continental shelf off of the three states.
California Sen. Barbara Boxer says offshore drilling puts the state’s coastal economy at risk.
Boxer’s office says the measure wouldn’t affect existing leases in federal waters or activity allowed in state waters.
Also backing the so-called West Coast Ocean Protection Act are Dianne Feinstein of California; Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington and Oregon’s Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.
A similar bill was submitted in 2010 but failed to clear Congress.
— Associated Press
Drug inmates with long rap sheets among those freed early
WASHINGTON — A push to overhaul criminal sentencing is prompting the early release of thousands of federal drug prisoners, including some whom prosecutors once described as threats to society, according to an Associated Press review of court records.
About 6,000 inmates are due to be freed from custody in the coming month, the result of changes made last year to guidelines that provide judges with recommended sentences for specific crimes. Federal officials say roughly 40,000 inmates could be eligible for reduced sentences in coming years.
Many of them are small-time drug dealers targeted by an approach to drug enforcement now condemned by many as overly harsh and expensive. But an AP analysis of nearly 100 court cases also identified defendants who carried semi-automatic weapons, had past convictions for robbery and other crimes, moved cocaine shipments across states, and participated in international heroin smuggling.
Supporters of lighter drug sentences say there’s no evidence that longer punishment protects public safety. Studies show that inmates released early aren’t more likely to reoffend than those who serve their entire sentences.
Still, the broad spectrum of defendants granted early release — including some about whom prosecutors not long ago raised dire warnings — underscores the complex decisions confronting the government as it pursues an overhaul of drug sentencing.
“I’m a career prosecutor. I’m a law-and-order girl, and I believe that you need to send dangerous people to prison for a very long time,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. “But I think that we need to be smart about deciding who are those dangerous people.”
Willie Best, a one-time District of Columbia drug dealer whose sentence was already slashed under past crack guideline changes, had an additional month taken off and is due out in 2016.
Prosecutors in 2008 said Best helped run a drug-dealing organization, shot at someone he believed had stolen from him and, after fleeing as warrants were served, was found in a stolen car with an assault rifle and other guns. His lawyer described him as the product of a troubled, impoverished upbringing. And Best, in an interview from prison, called himself a loving father who bears no resemblance to his past self.
“It’s been a long time coming. Eight years is a long time,” he said. “I came in one way. I’m coming out another.”
Guidelines set by the U.S. Sentencing Commission offer recommended minimum and maximum terms for federal crimes. The independent commission voted last year to reduce ranges for drug offenses, then applied those changes to already-imprisoned convicts.
Since then, prisoners have sought relief from judges, who can reject those they consider public safety threats. About three-quarters of requests had been granted as of August.
The first wave is due around Nov. 1, and most of those getting early release are already in halfway houses or under home confinement. Others will be released to immigration authorities for eventual deportation.
Though the commission has repeatedly tinkered with the guidelines, including narrowing the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences that resulted in disproportionately long penalties for blacks defendants, the latest revision is its most sweeping because it covers all drug types.
The commission delayed implementation by a year to allow judges time to review requests and weed out inappropriate candidates and so defendants could be moved to halfway houses.
“Nothing to date comes close to what this shift is likely to produce over the next decade or so, starting this year,” said Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group.
The action, along with an Obama administration clemency initiative and directives against mandatory minimum sentences, is part of a national effort to rethink punishments for a drug offender population that comprises roughly half the federal inmate count.
New bipartisan legislation in the Senate aimed at reducing spending on a prison system that sucks up nearly one-third of the Justice Department budget would give judges greater sentencing discretion and ease penalties for nonviolent criminals. House lawmakers are also expected to unveil criminal justice legislation this week.
Supporters call the commission’s move, which would on average pare two years from sentences and in many cases just months, a modest dialing-back of punishments that were too harsh to begin with and wouldn’t be imposed today.
Research shows “longer lengths of stay cost taxpayers a tremendous amount but don’t add any additional crime-control value,” said Adam Gelb, a Pew Charitable Trusts criminal justice expert.
But absent foolproof formulas, judges are grappling with balancing cost against public safety.
The issue arose last month in Washington, D.C., where a judge rejected early release bids from two organizers of a 1980s-era cocaine trafficking operation. Though both were sentenced in 1990, the judge declared them to be continuing threats and chastised prosecutors for appearing to dismiss the pair’s involvement in violent and calculating crime.
Others with shortened sentences are defendants whom prosecutors said had squandered repeated opportunities.
Regis Payne is due out in 2017 after his 82-month sentence for selling PCP in the District of Columbia was cut to 60 months. Before his 2012 sentencing, prosecutors called him a “calamity waiting to happen,” undeterred by past convictions. Roscoe Minns was cleared for release in November, though prosecutors in 2012 highlighted prior assault and theft convictions in pursuing stiff punishment.
Though some released early will reoffend, most will not, statistically speaking, said Ohio State law professor Doug Berman.
“Mark my words: The sky will not fall,” said Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
Tuan Evans, who sold pistols and cocaine to undercover officers, had 11 months shaved off his 108-month sentence. He wrote from prison that he’s acquired haircutting skills and hopes to start a landscaping business and mentor children once he’s freed. Records show a 2018 release date.
“You don’t have to lock us up and throw away the key when we make a mistake,” he said.
— Associated Press
Group launches new effort to boost California cigarette tax
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Proponents of an effort to raise California’s cigarette tax have launched a new effort to raise the cigarette tax by $2 a pack, this time with support from wealthy donor Tom Steyer.
A group that includes the California Medical Association, American Lung Association and Service Employees International Union said it submitted a new ballot initiative Wednesday.
The group already was cleared to gather signatures for two other similar measures to raise the cigarette tax by $2 a pack, with most of the money going to the Medi-Cal program for the poor.
Similar legislation stalled in the Legislature this year amid opposition from tobacco companies. Voters have rejected two other cigarette tax hikes in the last decade.
California’s current per-pack tax is 15th lowest in the nation at 87 cents.
— Associated Press
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