TIME

Obama Grants Early Release From Prison to 22 Drug Offenders

"Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity," the President wrote

Twenty-two people who are serving lengthy federal prison terms for drug offenses will be out from behind bars this summer, after President Obama reduced their sentences on Tuesday.

Seven of the people had been sentenced to life in prison, and some have already served more than two decades behind bars.

The White House says the release of the 22 prisoners is in line with the shorter sentences attached to drug offenses under today’s laws.

“Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” a White House blog post reads.

Tuesday’s announcement follows the President’s renewed focus on improving the criminal justice system in his second term. Last year, Obama’s Justice Department launched an initiative to identify candidates for clemency if they met certain criteria, including non-violent drug offenders who have spent at least a decade behind bars for their crimes.

The President sent a letter to each of the people who will soon be released. The letter reads in part: “I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity.”

The letter continues, “I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong.”

Julie Stewart, president of the Washington-based organization Families Against Mandatory Minimum Sentences (FAMM), hailed the decision to release the prisoners, saying, “President Obama is making good on his promise to use the powers granted him by the Constitution to provide relief for federal prisoners serving excessively long mandatory minimum sentences.”

“We hope and expect to see more commutations granted through the end of his term,” she added in a statement.

One of the 22 federal prisoners who will be released in July is Donel Marcus Clark, a member of FAMM who has been in prison for more than 20 years for his involvement in a nonviolent drug conspiracy.

The latest round of sentence reduction, formally known as commutations, brings Obama’s total tally of early releases to 43. That’s more commutations than Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush combined, though still not as many as granted by President Clinton.

P.S. Ruckman, a professor of political science and editor of a blog on the pardon power, tells TIME that Obama’s action on Tuesday is a sign the president is being thoughtful about issuing pardons.

“I would call it smart pardoning,” P.S. Ruckman tells TIME. “When you look at this, it looks like there’s a thought process behind it and that’s refreshing. It would restore faith in pardons if we had more of that.”

TIME

Defense Secretary Laughs Off Biden Getting Cozy With Wife

“We’re great friends with the Bidens.”

 

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said he laughed when he saw the Vice President engaged in an infamous “close-talk” with his wife while he was being sworn in.

“They know each other extremely well,” Carter told Savannah Guthrie in an interview with NBC’s TODAY on Tuesday. “We’re great friends of the Bidens.”

Cringeworthy images of Vice President Joe Biden leaning into Mrs. Carter’s ear during his swearing in ceremony went viral in mid-February. It wasn’t, however, the first time the veep got a little too close for comfort.

In the interview with Guthrie, Carter also addressed the ongoing negotiations with Iran over obtaining nuclear weapons. If a deal isn’t reached by the Tuesday deadline, Carter said, “the military option will remain on the table.” He added, “if there is a good deal to have, obviously it’s worth waiting for and completing the negotiations.”

Watch the full interview at Today.

Read next: Connecticut Bans State-Funded Travel to Indiana Over Controversial Law

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

 

TIME faith

Indiana Religious Freedom Law Breeds ‘First Church of Cannabis’

Marijuana plants are seen in an indoor cultivation in Montevideo
Andres Stapff—Reuters

Could the use of marijuana as a religious sacrament be protected under Indiana's new law?

Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act is facing its first real test — after Governor Mike Pence signed the controversial law, an Indiana man successfully filed to establish the “First Church of Cannabis Inc.”

The church is based on “love and understanding with compassion for all,” according to its founder’s interview with the Washington Post, and its sacrament, naturally, is cannabis. The church doesn’t plan to buy or sell marijuana, which is still illegal in Indiana, but it will grow hemp.

The church’s founder Bill Levin considers most religious holy texts things of the past. In his church, parishioners should have a profound understanding of “The Emperor Wears No Clothes,” he said. The church’s followers, called “cannataerians” also have a set of guiding principles, the first of them: “don’t be an a—hole.”

It may sound like a joke, but the church’s establishment is a real product of the new Indiana law that limits the state government’s ability to impede on an individual’s religious beliefs. Because the church celebrates the drug under the guise of religion, its use could be protected under the law.

[Washington Post]

TIME LGBT

Indianapolis Star Urges Governor to ‘Fix’ Religious Freedom Law

Image courtesy of The Indianapolis Star

State's biggest newspaper splashes op-ed on front page

A powerful new editorial in Indiana’s biggest newspaper has urged swift action on a religious freedom law that has roused the nation.

The front page of Tuesday’s Indianapolis Star newspaper was given up to feature a message from its editorial board to Gov. Mike Pence: fix the Religious Freedom Restoration Act “now.”

“Only bold action — action that sends an unmistakable message to the world that our state will not tolerate discrimination against any of its citizens — will be enough to reverse the damage,” the front page editorial reads.

Indiana has found itself in the national spotlight following the passage of a religious freedom law that critics say will allow private businesses to discriminate against LGBT people. Amid protests and calls for a repeal of the law, Gov. Mike Pence has continued to defend it.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed Tuesday, Gov. Pence said the law was a reflection of existing federal legislation, and denied it was intended to permit discrimination:

I abhor discrimination. I believe in the Golden Rule that you should “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If I saw a restaurant owner refuse to serve a gay couple, I wouldn’t eat there anymore. As governor of Indiana, if I were presented a bill that legalized discrimination against any person or group, I would veto it. Indiana’s new law contains no reference to sexual orientation. It simply mirrors federal law that President Bill Clinton signed in 1993.

On Tuesday, the Star’s editorial board says the governor and General Assembly doesn’t necessarily need to repeal the law, but they do need to provide expanded protection to the LGBT community to ensure discrimination in “housing, employment, education and public accommodations” can’t just happen.

“ Those protections and RFRA can co-exist,” the editorial reads, noting that states like Illinois have religious freedom laws, but also have laws to offer protection to gays and lesbians.

 

TIME White House

New Book Explores Role of Race for First Lady Michelle Obama

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama walk down the steps of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Md., Monday, March 30, 2015.
Susan Walsh—AP U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk down the steps of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on March 30, 2015

Author paints the First Lady as the President's rock, notes the impact her background would have on her future as the nation's first black First Lady

During her senior year at Princeton University, First Lady Michelle Obama couldn’t imagine she would live to see the election of the nation’s first African American, let alone be married to him. “To say that during her Princeton years she could not envision an African American president is like saying that the sun rises and sets every day,” writes Northwestern University Professor Peter Slevin in his upcoming biography, Michelle Obama: A Life.

At the time, the future First Lady was a girl from the South Side of Chicago, navigating the Ivy League world and its social intricacies while questioning the impact black Princeton graduates had on the community at large. She didn’t want to forget her roots and the importance of reaching back — a value instilled in her by her parents back home. Little did she know decades later, as her husband Barack Obama carries out the final years of his second term as President, some of her most notable achievements would involve doing just that.

There isn’t much news in Slevin’s 300-plus page biography of the first black First Lady, which is largely interesting for the mere fact that there’s an insatiable appetite for inside information on its main subject. The key biographical notes are all there: the stint at Princeton and Harvard Law School, her first job at Sidley Austin and her eventual foray into community engagement through her work at the organization Public Allies and the University of Chicago Hospital. Yet Slevin is able to connect the dots of Mrs. Obama’s life and assess the impact her upbringing, deeply rooted in the black experience, has had on not only her impressive career trajectory, but also the legacy she’ll leave behind as First Lady.

Much of the book is an exploration of the racial and cultural history of Chicago, a city with a rich history of segregation and strife, that’s also home to a neighborhood where the Obamas’ home is located that White House adviser Valerie Jarrett describes as “the real world as it should be.” And the anecdotes about the First Lady’s life draw the importance her race has played in her life trajectory.

Michelle and her brother Craig lived in a tiny apartment on the second floor of a bungalow on South Euclid Avenue, where their resourceful parents emphasized the importance of getting an education while filling the gaps on black history left open by their Chicago public-school education. She would later ride public transportation to the sprawling magnet high school she attended, named after civil rights icon Whitney Young, where counselors would tell her she wasn’t a good fit for her dream school of Princeton. Her sights, they said, were too high. She’d later use that same rhetoric to urge folks to vote for her husband, a freshman Senator with his sights set on the White House. And eventually, the story would help her persuade audiences of young people, particularly black and brown students, to focus on getting a college education as a part of her Reach Higher Initiative at the White House.

Even in a short blurb about the Obamas’ budding romance, the author notes that Michelle’s mother Marian at one point worried that Barack’s biracial background would make navigating society’s prejudices difficult. In the end, though, she accepted the future President who she said “shared the values of [their] family.”

And despite the success the First Lady was able to achieve for herself, some of the most influential work she’s done happened on the campaign trail. Though reluctant to agree to a headfirst dive into national politics following the then state senator’s unsuccessful bid for the seat of Illinois Representative Bobby Rush, the First Lady is depicted as a ride-or-die politician’s wife, who was ready and willing to do whatever it took to secure her husband’s position in the American history books.

“If Barack was a helium balloon,” Slevin writes, “Michelle was the one holding the string.”

Slevin’s biography of the First Lady will be released April 7.

TIME White House

Obama Pays Tribute to Senate’s ‘Lion’ at Edward M. Kennedy Institute Opening

Barack Obama
Susan Walsh—AP President Barack Obama speaks at the dedication of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, in Boston on March 30, 2015.

Vice President Biden, Sen. John McCain and others also among the speakers

President Barack Obama used the opening of an institute dedicated to the legacy of the late Teddy Kennedy on Monday to ask a crowd of U.S. Senators and other dignitaries why Washington officials couldn’t be more like the man known as the lion of the Senate.

Obama, who was joined by the First Lady, Vice President Biden, and Republican and Democratic Senators at the opening dedication ceremony for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston, said he hoped the new facility would inspire and educate visitors. “We live in a time of such great cynicism about our institutions. We are cynical about Washington and about government most of all,” Obama said. “This place can help change that. It can help light the fire of imagination.”

The institute aims to teach visitors about the importance of the United States Senate and motivate younger generations to engage in the political process. The cornerstone of the sprawling white institute, designed by architect Rafael Viñoly, is a full-scale replica of the U.S. Senate chambers where Kennedy served for 47 years.

Vice President Biden said he had a front row seat to the nearly five decades Kennedy spent in the Senate where he fought passionately for some of the most divisive and important legislation of our nation’s history. Biden said he hopes that the institute and the celebration of Kennedy’s legacy will help future generations learn to listen and find consensus among their adversaries and hopefully begin to fix the broken system of government. “All politics is personal,” Biden said. “No one in my life understood that better than Ted Kennedy.”

Kennedy’s reputation as a bipartisan deal-maker was reflected at Monday’s ceremony by the number of Republicans, including former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Sen. John McCain, joining Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey in singing Kennedy’s praises.

Sen. McCain of Arizona recalled a particularly fiery exchange he and the late Senator had on the floor of the Senate once, after which Kennedy gave him a hug and the two shared a laugh about it. The Senate, McCain said, has missed his late colleague. “No, the place hasn’t been the same without him, but if we learn the right lessons from the late Edward M. Kennedy’s example we can make it better,” McCain said. “We can make it a place where every member can serve with pride and love.”

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a champion of progressive policies to benefit the working and middle class, shared a story of how Ted Kennedy’s fight for bankruptcy reform inspired her to enter politics. “Senator Kennedy changed my life,” Warren said. “And he changed what I understood about public service.”

“This institute will give millions of people an opportunity to be inspired. That is the perfect way to honor the memory of Ted Kennedy,” she added.

TIME Supreme Court

Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Protecting Pregnant Women in the Workplace

A woman who challenged UPS policy on pregnant workers can take her case back to court

Companies that provide special treatment for a large percentage of their injured workers should do the same for pregnant women, the Supreme Court decided on Wednesday.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of former UPS employee Peggy Young, who challenged a company policy that did not allow her to take on lighter duties during her pregnancy, even though the company provided alternative work to some employees with injuries or other circumstances that prevented them from doing their regular jobs.

Wednesday’s ruling blocked an earlier decision saying UPS was justified in not accommodating Young and now sends the case back to a lower court, where her original lawsuit can be revived. Young is seeking back pay and benefits for the time she went without work during her pregnancy. (She’s since found work elsewhere.)

In the court’s majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer, said there is “genuine dispute as to whether UPS provided more favorable treatment to at least some employees whose situation cannot reasonably be distinguished from Young’s.”

Breyer was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elana Kagan and Chief Justice John Roberts in his opinion. Justice Samuel Alito also joined, but wrote his own opinion.

When Young became pregnant in 2006, doctors advised her to take on a lighter workload during her pregnancy. UPS refused, saying its policy was to treat pregnant women as if they were injured outside the workplace, which did not entitle them to special accommodations. As a result, Young had to take unpaid leave.

Young challenged this decision, saying it was unfair of UPS to not make accommodations for pregnant workers (a policy that has since changed) while offering alternative duties to those who were injured on the job.

Breyer wrote that the lower court must consider why UPS made accommodations for other workers but did not do the same for pregnant women. “Why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?” Breyer asked.

The Court didn’t go so far as to say that pregnant workers should be treated more favorably than others, just that pregnant workers should be given the same accommodations offered to others. Still, Young’s lawyers called the decision a “big win for women in the workplace.”

“The Court recognized that employers can’t put pregnancy in a class by itself. The Court recognized that a ruling for UPS would thwart Congress’s intent,” said Sam Bagenstos, who argued Young’s case before the Supreme Court last December.

“It made clear that employers may not refuse to accommodate pregnant workers based on considerations of cost or convenience when they accommodate other workers,” he said in a statement.

On a press call Wednesday, Marcia Greenberger of the National Women’s Law Center said the Court’s ruling “reaffirmed that the pregnancy discrimination act means what it says.”

“It is illegal sex discrimination,” she said.

UPS praised the Supreme Court’s ruling as well.

“UPS is pleased that the Supreme Court rejected the argument that UPS’s pregnancy-neutral policy was inherently discriminatory,” the company said in a statement, according to reports. “Instead, the Supreme Court adopted a new standard for evaluating pregnancy discrimination claims without ruling for either party and sent the case back to the lower courts for further consideration.”

Young’s case comes as many states have and are considering expanded protections for pregnant workers. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also issued updated guidance on how employers can treat pregnant employees under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act last July.

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Slows Troop Drawdown in Afghanistan

President Obama said the U.S. will keep about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan this year, as that country’s leaders had asked he slow the process of removing troops by 2017.

“This flexibility reflects a reinvigoration in our partnership with Afghanistan,” Obama said at a joint press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Tuesday.

Obama had previously said he wanted to draw down the remaining 9,800 troops to about half that number by the end of the year, with the goal of having between 1,000 and 1,500 in the country when he leaves office in 2017.

Ghani and Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah have spent the past two days in Washington meeting with high-level officials and expressing gratitude for the American government’s assistance as he seeks to assert control in the country. The Afghan leaders’ trip to the U.S. have marked a bit of a new way forward between the two countries. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on Monday referred to the relationship as “revitalized.”

Ghani said the flexibility will allow the country to accelerate reforms to ensure its security forces are better trained and focused on their fundamental mission and to ensure that they “honor human rights.”

“Tragedy brought us together, interests now unite us,” Ghani said at the press conference.

Obama noted that slowing the drawdown means more Americans will remain in Afghanistan who would have come home, but he stressed that the overall goal of returning most troops by 2017 hasn’t changed.

“Providing this additional timeframe,” he said, “… is well worth it.”

TIME White House

White House Official Pushes Netanyahu to ‘Match Words with Action’

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told a group of liberal, pro-Israel supporters the solution was fundamental to U.S. foreign policy

A top White House official doubled down on criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a speech to an American Jewish organization Monday.

Appearing before the annual conference for J Street, a pro-Israel liberal advocacy group, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said that Netanyahu’s new coalition needs to “match words with action” on the Israeli policy toward Palestine.

“An occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end, and the Palestinian people must have the right to live in and govern themselves in their own sovereign state,” he said.

On the eve of an election last week, Netanyahu had said that he would not allow a Palestinian state if he was re-elected, though he walked back the comments in an interview on MSNBC after he won.

In his remarks, McDonough argued that a two-state solution would benefit Israel too, allowing it to remain “both Jewish and democratic.”

“I know that you are here because you care deeply about the cause of peace,” he told the crowd. “And your voices are important too – you can help remind people that there is a great constituency for peace; that there are people who believe, as President Obama does, that peace is necessary, peace is just, and – yes – peace is possible.”

TIME White House

Obama Says America’s ‘Open for Business’ at Summit

U.S. President Obama waves after speaking at the SelectUSA Investment Summit
Joshua Roberts—Reuters President Barack Obama waves after speaking at the SelectUSA Investment Summit at National Harbor, Md on March 23, 2015.

President Obama was self-assured during a quick sales pitch to foreign business leaders Monday, saying he was confident that he could work with Congress to iron out trade deals and a budget plan.

“The things that help businesses grow are not partisan,” Obama said in his remarks.

Still, he and a key Cabinet member warned Republicans against blocking the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which helps foreign companies that need credit buy U.S. goods.

Obama faces partisan difficulties on both sides as he pushes ahead with the business-friendly agenda. A conservative group backed by the Koch Brothers launched a new effort Monday to block the Ex-Im Bank, arguing that it represents “cronyism and corporate welfare.”

The administration is also going head-to-head with members of the Democratic Party and typical supporters like labor unions as it irons out the plan that would free up trade between the U.S. and about a dozen countries in the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America.

Some of the most outspoken critics are Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who oppose the administration’s goal of moving the trade legislation through Congress quickly because they worry it will threaten jobs and standards on food and product safety.

In an interview ahead of the President’s speech, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said it would be “terrible” if the Ex-Im Bank were to expire and argued the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal is critical to the U.S. remaining competitive with Asia’s growing middle class.

“Today there are 550 million people in the middle class in Asia,” she said. “That number will be 2.7 billion in 15 years. The ability for our companies to be able to sell into the fastest-growing middle class market in the world is really critical.”

Vinai Thummalapally, the executive director of SelectUSA, told reporters that foreign investors are generally confident that the debate over the Ex-Im bank will die down eventually.

“In spite of the debate, it rarely comes up there’s this confidence that things will settle down, based on things that happened in the past.” for the most part, he added, “they’re amused, they shake their heads.”

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