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Sarah Christensen Attorney At Law, P.C. - Attorney Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs, CO

"Justitia Omnibus"

(Justice For All)

"There is one way in this country in which all men are created equal -- there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court." - Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird

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By sarahchrist77708548, Apr 4 2016 03:49PM

Despite commuting on wednesday the sentences of 61 federal prisoners convicted of drug and firearm crimes — bringing his total number of commutations to 248, more than that of his six predecessors combined — he is far from accomplishing the ambitious goals his administration publicly set out two years ago.

In the spring of 2014, the Obama administration announced an initiative to consider granting clemency to thousands of federal prisoners serving what Mr. Obama called “unjust” sentences for low-level drug crimes. Federal prisoners were notified of the project, and more than 30,000 responded by submitting surveys to begin the process.

Despite the relatively high number of commutations that Mr. Obama has now granted, there are still more than 9,000 pending commutation cases, many of the sort singled out in the 2014 initiative as potentially worthy. So why has the president acted on so few?

Typically, a reluctance to exercise the pardon power is a result of political timidity. But in this case, the Obama administration already took the political risk two years ago when it announced the clemency initiatPresident Obama met with people who have received commutations, including Ramona Brant, left, in Washington, D.C., yesterday. Credit Zach Gibson/The New York Times

When the pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, resigned in January, she complained in her letter of resignation that meritorious clemency cases had been thwarted by those above her. She noted in particular that some of her own recommendations had been overruled by the deputy attorney general, Sally Quillian Yates.

It is not an incidental fact that Ms. Yates is a career prosecutor. When the Department of Justice reviews clemency cases, the opinions of prosecutors in the district of conviction are solicited and given considerable weight. But prosecutors are the wrong people for the task of vetting clemency cases. I was a federal prosecutor for five years. In that job, deciding someone’s fate is a necessary but difficult emotional commitment. The prospect of being wrong — and a clemency initiative like Mr. Obama’s can feel like a judgment that prosecutors were wrong — can be a lot to bear. We should not be surprised if, when it comes to Mr. Obama’s clemency initiative, prosecutors systematically resist what is, in effect, an indictment of their work.

President Obama can and should fix this problem with a simple executive order that places the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the White House, rather than at the bottom of the institutional structure at the Department of Justice. An empowered pardon attorney (or perhaps a pardon board, as we find in many states) would then report directly to the president. That would allow an independent but thorough review of clemency petitions free from the influence of career prosecutors.

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In addition, by reducing the number of levels of review, the president could focus more effectively on those cases that may matter most to him — for example, the hundreds of prisoners, nearly all of them black, who are serving excessively long terms under crack-cocaine laws that were subsequently reformed with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

If he is going to make good on his administration’s promise from 2014, Mr. Obama needs to take action soon. And he should: The value of mercy is profound and lasting, as the coin in my pocket suggests.

It may seem odd that I carry around with me an ancient Roman artifact, but the truth is that it cost only $28 on eBay. It’s not a fake; it just isn’t that rare. So many were minted that the supply remains large, even now. It is a striking image: millions of Roman subjects carrying around with them the name of the goddess of clemency.

Her spirit, and that of the Constitution, should be remembered now. President Obama still has time to honor his promise.

By sarahchrist77708548, Apr 4 2016 03:34PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama commuted the prison sentences of 61 drug offenders on Wednesday including more than a third serving life sentences, working to give new energy to calls for overhauling the U.S. criminal justice system.

All of the inmates are serving time for drug possession, intent to sell or related crimes. Most are nonviolent offenders, although a few were also charged with firearms violations. Obama's commutation shortens their sentences, with most of the inmates set to be released on July 28.

Obama, in a letter to the inmates receiving commutations, said the presidential power to grand commutations and pardons "embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws."

One of the inmates, Jesse Webster of Chicago, is serving a life term for intent to sell cocaine and filing false tax returns. Another, Byron McDade of Bowie, Maryland, got 27 years for cocaine-related charges as well. In both cases, judges in the cases later said publicly it was too harsh, though sentencing guidelines often prevent judges from being more lenient. Webster and McDade will both be released later this year.

Most are nonviolent offenders, although a few also faced firearms charges. Nabar Criam of Brooklyn, New York, was sentenced to 15 years for possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute, but received an additional charge for having a gun on hand during a drug trafficking crime.

The latest tranche of commutations brings to 248 the total number of inmates whose sentences Obama has commuted — more than the past six presidents combined, the White House said. The pace of commutations and the rarer use of pardons are expected to increase as the end of Obama's presidency nears.

"Throughout the remainder of his time in office, the president is committed to continuing to issue more grants of clemency as well as to strengthening rehabilitation programs," said Neil Eggleston, the White House counsel, in a blog post.

President Barack Obama speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, March 30, 2016. President Barack Obama is commuting the prison sentences of 61 people serving time for drug-related offenses. The White House says more than a third of the inmates were serving life sentences. Obama's commutation shortens their sentences. Most will be released July 28© Jacquelyn Martin President Barack Obama speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, March 30, 2016. President Barack Obama is commuting the prison sentences of…

He added that clemency is a tool of last resort that can help specific people, but doesn't address the broader need for a "more fair and just" system and "fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies."

In a bid to call further attention to the issue, Obama met for lunch Wednesday with people whose sentences were previously commuted to hear about the challenges of re-entering society. One of the former inmates, Kemba Smith, was seven months pregnant when she turned herself in on crack cocaine charges, and she served more than 6 years before former President Bill Clinton granted clemency in 2000. She went on to study social work and become an advocate, the White House said.

Though there's wide bipartisan support for a criminal justice overhaul, what had looked like a promising legislative opportunity in Obama's final year has recently lost steam. As with Obama's other priorities, the din of the chaotic presidential campaign has increasingly made cooperation among Republicans and Democrats in Congress this year a non-starter.

Last month, a group of Senate Republicans declared their opposition to the legislation Obama and some conservatives had been pushing, dealing a major blow to prospects of getting it done this year. A key Senate committee had already approved the bipartisan bill, which would let judges hand out lesser sentences more lenient than the federal mandatory minimums and eliminate mandatory life sentences for drug offenders caught three times. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has said the overhaul is doable but doesn't have to get done in 2016.

Obama has long called for getting rid of strict sentences for drug offenses, arguing they lead to excessive punishment and sky-high incarceration rates. With Obama's support, the Justice Department in recent years has directed prosecutors to rein in the use of harsh mandatory minimums.

The Obama administration has also expanded criteria for inmates applying for clemency, targeting nonviolent offenders who have behaved well in prison and would have received shorter sentences if convicted of the same crime a few years later. Civil liberties groups hailed that move but have since raised concerns that too few are actually receiving clemency under the policy.


By sarahchrist77708548, Mar 29 2016 09:18PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation's top health officials are stepping up calls to require doctors to log in to pill-tracking databases before prescribing painkillers and other high-risk drugs.

The move is part of a multi-pronged strategy by the Obama administration to tame an epidemic of abuse and death tied to opioid painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin. But physician groups see a requirement to check databases before prescribing popular drugs for pain, anxiety and other ailments as being overly burdensome.

Helping push the administration's effort forward is an unusual, multi-million lobbying campaign funded by a former corporate executive who has turned his attention to fighting addiction.

"Their role is to say what needs to be done, my role is to get it done," says Gary Mendell, CEO of the non-profit Shatterproof, which is lobbying in state capitals to tighten prescribing standards for addictive drugs.

Mendell founded the group in 2011, after his son committed suicide following years of addiction to painkillers. Previously Mendell was CEO of HEI Hotels and Resorts, which operates upscale hotels. To date, Mendell has invested $4.1 million of his own money in the group to hire lobbyists, public relations experts and 12 full-time staffers.

A new report from Shatterproof lays out key recommendations to improve prescription monitoring systems, which are currently used in 49 states.

The systems collect data on prescriptions for high-risk drugs that can be viewed by doctors and government officials to spot suspicious patterns. The aim is to stop "doctor shopping," where patients rack up multiple prescriptions from different doctors, either to satisfy their own drug addiction or to sell on the black market. But in most states, doctors are not required to check the databases before writing prescriptions.

Last week, the White House sent letters to all 50 U.S. governors recommending that they require doctors to check the databases and require pharmacists to upload drug dispensing data on a daily basis.

The databases are "a proven tool for reducing prescription drug misuse and diversion," said Michael Botticelli, National Drug Control Policy Director, in a statement.

But government health officials say virtually all state systems need improvements, including more up-to-date information.

"There isn't yet a single state in the country that has an optimal prescription drug monitoring program that works in real time, actively managing every prescription," said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a press conference last week.

Physicians warn about the unintended consequences of mandating use of programs that can be slow and difficult to use. Patients may face longer waits and less time with their physicians, says Dr. Steven Sacks, president of the American Medical Association.

"There really is a patient safety and quality-of-care cost when you mandate the use of tools that are not easy to use," Sacks said.

The report from Shatterproof highlights the gaps in current prescribing systems. When doctors are not required to log in, they generally only do so 14 percent of the time, according to data from Brandeis University.

The report points to positive results in seven states that have mandated database usage: Kentucky, New York, Tennessee, Connecticut, Ohio, Wisconsin and Massachusetts. In Kentucky, deaths linked to prescription opioids fell 25 percent after the state required log-ins in 2012, along with other steps designed to curb inappropriate prescribing.

The same information can be used to prevent deadly drug interactions between opioids and other common medications, including anti-anxiety drugs like Valium of Xanax.

Opioids are highly addictive drugs that include both prescription painkillers like codeine and morphine, as well as illegal narcotics, like heroin. Deaths linked to opioid misuse and abuse have increased fourfold since 1999 to more than 29,000 in 2014, the highest figure on record, according to the CDC.

Earlier this month the CDC released the first-ever national guidelines for prescribing opioids, urging doctors to try non-opioid painkillers, physical therapy and other methods for treating chronic pain.

But pain specialists fear requiring pill-tracking databases will discourage doctors from prescribing the drugs even when appropriate, leaving patients in pain. Dr. Gregory Terman says it takes him three minutes to log in to the system used in his home state of Washington.

"If it was easier to use, more people would use it," said Terman, who is president of the American Pain Society, a group which accepts money from pain drugmakers. Like many physicians, Terman says he supports the technology but doesn't think it should be required.

Last week, two states targeted by Shatterproof signed into law database-checking requirements: Massachusetts and Wisconsin. Mendell says his staffers are lobbying now in California and Maryland.

"I don't think we can afford to wait decades for this to slowly get implemented into the system," he says. "I think we need to take action now."


By sarahchrist77708548, Mar 29 2016 09:16PM

SAN FRANCISCO — Although the government officially withdrew from its battle against Apple Monday, many observers sense the tech privacy war is just getting started.

"This lawsuit may be over, but the Constitutional and privacy questions it raised are not," Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who had criticized the Justice Department's legal effort against Apple, said in a statement Monday.

The Justice Department withdrew its legal action against Apple after a method brought to the FBI earlier this month by an unidentified entity allowed investigators to crack the security function without erasing contents of the iPhone used by Syed Farook, who with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, carried out the December mass shooting in San Bernardino that left 14 dead.

The government maintained it was looking for access to one phone, but Apple countered that asking for a code that could access the iPhone 5c would create a backdoor to all such devices that was exploitable by other entities.

"This case should never have been brought," Apple said in a statement released late Monday. "We will continue to help law enforcement with their investigations, as we have done all along, and we will continue to increase the security of our products as the threats and attacks on our data become more frequent and more sophisticated. ... This case raised issues which deserve a national conversation about our civil liberties, and our collective security and privacy."


Apple v FBI timeline

In its two-page filing in a California magistrate's court, the government noted that due to outside assistance it "no longer requires the assistance from Apple Inc." Justice spokeswoman Melanie Newman said the FBI is reviewing the contents of the phone as "consistent with standard investigatory procedures," and that "we will continue to pursue all available options for this mission, including seeking the cooperation of manufacturers and relying upon the creativity of both the public and private sectors."

Government law enforcement officials have denied charges the FBI wanted to establish a backdoor to Apple's encryption, and swatted away accusations that they were using the case to gain broader access to consumers' devices.

"The San Bernardino case was not about trying to send a message or set a precedent; it was and is about fully investigating a terrorist attack,'' FBI Director James Comey wrote in an editorial last week.

The FBI has about a dozen similar cases pending in which it wants access to smartphone information to assist with a case. So while this particular showdown may be over, "there are other cases pending where law enforcement relies on the All Writs Act" to access tech gadget data, referring to an old law that can compel companies to help the government in pursuit of its duties, says Denelle Dixon-Thayer, Chief Legal and Business Officer at Mozilla, the company behind the Firefox browser.

"This question is clearly not going away just because the government has withdrawn their request in this particular case," she says.

Mozilla and dozens of other tech companies that supported Apple with amicus briefs will be watching what happens next carefully.

Privacy issues have both societal and financial implications. Given the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, concerns loom about how rogue regimes could leverage back doors into tech products to go after detractors. Companies like Apple, whose brand identity is anchored to data security, could face declining sales if smartphones and tablets prove hackable.

All that is counterbalanced by the need for public security in an age when terrorists use encrypted smartphone communication to secretly plot devastating attacks such as the recent suicide missions in Brussels and Paris.

Justice officials declined to comment on whether the technique used to unlock the phone would be applied to other encrypted devices. Authorities also refused comment on whether the method would be shared with Apple.

Tashfeen Malik, left, and Syed Farook are seen in this

Tashfeen Malik, left, and Syed Farook are seen in this 2014 photo. (Photo: AP)

Apple officials said on a call with reporters last week that if the iPhone in question was accessed, the company would want to know how so it can improve its encryption techniques. Declining to turn over such details to Apple engineers would "leave ordinary users at risk from malicious third-parties who also may use the vulnerability," says Andrew Crocker, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Monday's action concludes six weeks of building tensions between the government and the the Silicon Valley i-product giant. The FBI insisted for weeks that only Apple could crack the contents of Farook's iPhone. Apple said such an action amounted to a digital "backdoor" that could eventually undermine the privacy of consumers — an unwavering stance supported by Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other tech giants.

The foes were poised to face off in a court room in Riverside, Calif., last week before the Justice Department abruptly asked for — and was granted — a postponement.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has crusaded in a highly coordinated public campaign against the dangers of weakened security in digital devices. This month, Apple said the “Founding Fathers would be appalled” because the government’s order to unlock the iPhone was based on what it said was non-existent authority asserted by the DOJ.

California U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker said federal authorities had pursued the litigation to “fulfill a solemn commitment to the victims of the San Bernardino shooting — that we will not rest until we have fully pursued every investigative lead related to the vicious attack.’’

Alex Abdo, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, called the government’s “unprecedented power-grab” a threat to everyone’s security and privacy.

“Unfortunately, (Monday's) news appears to be just a delay of an inevitable fight over whether the FBI can force Apple to undermine the security of its own products,” Abdo said in a statement late Monday. “We would all be more secure if the government ended this reckless effort.”

By sarahchrist77708548, Mar 28 2016 11:48PM

National Security

Feds pursuing fewer drug cases with mandatory minimum penalties

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Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates at the Justice Department last year. On Monday, Yates released data that shows federal prosecutors are pursuing fewer drug cases. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

By Matt Zapotosky March 21

Federal prosecutors are pursuing fewer drug cases and filing charges that trigger mandatory minimum sentences less frequently — two indications, Justice Department officials say, that former attorney general Eric Holder’s initiative to reduce the prison population and enforce drug laws more judiciously has been a success.

The feds brought 6 percent fewer drug cases in fiscal year 2015 than they did in 2014, continuing a steady decline since Holder announced his “Smart on Crime” initiative three years ago, according to Justice Department data released Monday.

In 53.1 percent of the 2015 cases, no mandatory minimum sentence was triggered — compared with 48.7 percent in 2014 and 38.5 percent in 2013.

[Read The Washington Post’s series “Unwinding the Drug War”]

“We’re really happy with the direction,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said at a briefing to announce the data. “We see it trending the direction we wanted it to see.”

Holder’s initiative, announced in August 2013, asked federal prosecutors not to bring charges that would trigger mandatory minimum sentences against low-level drug offenders and to consider whether cases were serious enough to warrant prosecution at the federal level. Yates said the idea was to ensure that Justice Department’s limited resources were being used efficiently, and that federal prosecutors were not unnecessarily filling federal prisons.

The initiative is not without controversy. Some federal prosecutors and local district attorneys nationwide have said that tough sentencing policies help law enforcement break up drug networks by putting pressure on lower-level defendants to plead guilty and cooperate and that long prison terms help bring down crime overall.

[Holder touts flexibility in lower-level drug cases amid ‘mind set’ change]

Yates said that data showed drug defendants have been pleading guilty at roughly the same rate since Holder’s initiative started, and she disagreed with the idea that it played a role in upticks in crime in certain parts of the country. She said the data showed federal prosecutors were focusing on the most serious drug cases, noting that the percentage of drug defendants with a weapon rose from 16.4 percent in fiscal year 2014 to 17.3 percent in fiscal year 2015.

The percentage of defendants who qualified for the so-called safety valve — reserved for non-violent offenders with little to no criminal history — fell from 37 percent in 2011 to 32 percent in 2015, the Justice Department said.

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