TIME Military

Taking the Crisis Out of ISIS

George H.W. Bush is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.
An F-18 leaves it carrier for a bombing run against ISIS targets. Navy photo / Robert Burck

Pentagon reports some good news from the front

After four months of stalemate in the U.S.-led air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, the U.S. military finally expressed measured optimism Thursday over the course of the campaign.

“We’re seeing initial successes in this fight,” Army Lieut. General James Terry told reporters at the Pentagon. “My assessment is that Daesh has been halted in transitioning to the defense and is attempting to hold what they currently have.”

The Pentagon has begun referring to ISIS—which is also know as ISIL, for the Islamic State in the Levant—as Daesh, after prodding from its allies.

In Arabic, Daesh and ISIL sound alike, although “daesh” literally means “to crush underneath the foot,” Terry said. “Our partners, at least the ones that I work with, ask us to use that, because they feel that if you use ISIL, that you legitimize a self-declared caliphate, and they feel pretty strongly that we should not be doing that.”

ISIS forces still control roughly a third of Iraq and Syria. Regaining major territory in both nations won’t be possible until local ground forces can be assembled and trained to take the fight to the Islamic militants in the major cities they now hold. The launch of any such single counter-offensive is months away, and will take years to drive ISIS from all the cities, Pentagon officials believe.

Later Thursday, the Pentagon’s top spokesman said air strikes over the last month have killed senior ISIS officials. “Since mid-November, targeted coalition airstrikes successfully killed multiple [ISIS] senior and mid-level leaders,” Rear Admiral John Kirby said. The Wall Street Journal reported that three senior leaders had been killed.

“We believe that the loss of these key leaders degrades [ISIS’s] ability to command and control current operations against Iraqi Security Forces, including Kurdish and other local forces in Iraq,” Kirby added in a statement. The U.S. and its allies have conducted 1,361 air strikes since August, with 86% of those carried out by U.S. warplanes (the U.S. has carried out 97% of the strikes in Syria this month, Reuters reports).

The Pentagon statements didn’t occur in a vacuum. Last week, lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee expressed ire at the slow pace of the war against ISIS. “Does the United States have some other strategic plan other than arming these [Syrian] folks that aren’t going to show up till 2016, dropping bombs, that are marginal whether they’ve been successful, and helping with military aid to some of these coalition countries?” Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, asked Brett McGurk, the Obama Administration’s anti-ISIS envoy.

“It was designed,” McGurk said, “to be a long-term program.”

TIME Morning Must Reads

Morning Must Reads: December 19

Capitol
The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

Exclusive: Ted Cruz on Why Cuba’s Leaders Can’t Be Trusted

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, writing for TIME, shares his family’s experience with the Castro regime, and argues that Congress should reject President Obama’s new Cuba policy. “[The Castros] are evil, and we cannot make a deal with an evil regime,” he writes

8 Children Found Dead in North Australia

Eight children, ranging in age from 18 months to 15 years, were found dead inside a home in the northern Australian city of Cairns on Friday

White House Doesn’t Rule Out Cybercounterattack in Sony Hack

The White House said it is currently devising a “proportional response” to the massive hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Watch Stephen Colbert Bid Farewell to The Colbert Report

Stephen Colbert brought an end Thursday to one of the greatest sustained performances in pop culture, TV or otherwise, when he hosted the final episode of his satirical Colbert Report, featuring cameos from everyone from Christiane Amanpour to Bill Clinton

Obama Praises LeBron for Wearing ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Shirt

President Barack Obama applauded LeBron James in a new interview for wearing a shirt dedicated to Eric Garner during a recent game and said more sports stars should use their influence to address social issues

U.S. Kills 3 ISIS Leaders in Iraq Strikes, Officials Say

Defense officials said Thursday that American air strikes had killed three of the group’s mid- to high-level leaders in the past month and a half. One official called the deaths a “serious blow to ISIS command and control”

Fincher and Ellroy to Make HBO Series

Gone Girl Director David Fincher has signed up for an HBO noir detective series together with L.A. Confidential writer James Ellroy. Shakedown is set in the underworld of 1950s Los Angeles and is inspired by the life of Hollywood vice cop-turned-private eye Fred Otash

Uber Takes a Break in Portland

Facing ruinous fines of $1,500 against the company, and up to $2,250 for the driver, each time a fare was picked up, Uber has agreed to stop its services until Portland legalizes ride-sharing

NASA’s Kepler Telescope Discovers Another Planet

NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft has found another new planet. Dubbed HIP 116454b, the new body is bigger than Earth, smaller than Neptune and probably too hot to sustain life as we know it

Chinese President Xi Jinping to Visit Macau

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Macau on Friday for the tiny Chinese enclave’s 15th anniversary of its transfer back to China’s hands. Xi will try ensure Macau does not go the way of Hong Kong, which has recently become a hotbed of political dissent

Investigators Say Arsonists Responsible for Massive L.A. Fire

Federal investigators believe a fire that took down an entire apartment complex in downtown L.A. last week was set on purpose. It took 250 firefighters an hour and a half to put out the blaze at the Da Vinci apartment complex on Dec. 10

FCC Rejects Claim That the Word ‘Redskins’ Is Obscene

The FCC denied a law professor’s attempt to strip a radio station of its license because of repeated use of the word. The FCC said the word isn’t obscene, citing a Supreme Court ruling defining obscene material as something sexual in nature

We will hold an #AskTIME subscriber Q&A today, Friday, December 19, at 1 p.m., with TIME managing editor, Nancy Gibbs, who recently selected The Ebola Fighters as TIME’s choice for Person of the Year 2014.

You can submit your questions beforehand on Twitter using the #AskTIME hashtag or in the comments of this post. We depend on smart, interesting questions from readers.

You will need to be a TIME subscriber to read the Q & A. ($30 a year or 8 cents a day for the magazine and all digital content.) Once you’re signed up, you can log in to the site with a username and password.

TIME

Wall Street Money Can Predict How Democrats Vote. Here’s How

Follow the money in the latest budget vote which rolled back regulations on banks and divided House Democrats

A week after the gargantuan spending deal squeezed through Congress, many Democrats are still smarting over a provision in the bill that rolls back regulation on how banks can take risks with taxpayer money.

While the financial sector’s boon was too big a pill for many on the left to swallow, 57 Democrats in the House ultimately voted for the legislation, pushing the bill over the goal line. (The final vote for the bill, which picked up the nickname “Cromnibus” along the way, was 219-206).

As the Washington Post noticed last week, those 57 Democrats received considerably more money in campaign donations from the financial sector than their colleagues who voted against the bill. While this may not be terribly surprising, it is an usually clear example of the correlation between money and votes. (As always, the causation–whether the money directly influenced a lawmaker’s vote–does not come along for the ride in this analysis.)

To put a finer point on it, TIME collected data from the Center for Responsive Politics on how much money financial companies gave to each House Democrat in the past two years. When you line up the members in the order of how much they got and how they voted, the pattern is pretty clear. (A handful of newer members are missing due to incomplete data.)

The controversial provision was originally a standalone bill, parts of which was reportedly drafted by Citibank lobbyists. That bill passed the House in 2013 with the support of 70 Democrats but never became law. The divide in the party among those who receive significant contributions from the financial sector was even more apparent then.

Finance, Insurance and Real Estate companies gave a total of $304 Million to members of congress in the last election cycle, more than any other industry identified by the Centre for Responsive Politics. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and John Boehner (R-OH) are top recipients from this industry each receiving over $3 Million. The same companies also gave Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS), the congressman who introduced the controversial amendment into the spending bill, $206,700 in the same cycle. These figures don’t include the money that groups like Citibank spent on lobbying efforts.

Members of Congress make voting decisions based on an extraordinary number of considerations, and any given representative can argue quite persuasively that he or she is not motivated by the wants and desires of major donors. When you zoom out, however, you see a correlation between donations and voting behavior that is very unlikely to be a random occurrence, regardless of the root causes.

Methodology

These figures represent political action committees (PACs) representing financial companies made to candidates, not employees who work for those companies, and do not include contributions made to members’ leadership PACs. The Center for Responsive Politics defines financial companies as commercial banks, credit unions, real estate companies, and a variety of other related industries. The correlation coefficient between the binary outcome of the vote and the dollar amount of contributions was 0.34 for HR 83 and 0.42 for HR 992.

 

TIME justice

Obama’s Judicial Legacy May Have Been Settled This Week

Bossy Sotomayor
Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor makes on opening statement during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, July 13, 2009. Tom Williams--CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

A historically diverse group of judges

The 113th Congress may have passed the least number of bills in recorded history, but it did push through a heck of a lot of judges, helping secure a major part of President Obama’s judicial legacy.

After a whirlwind series of late and even midnight sessions these past few weeks, the Senate confirmed a total of 132 district and circuit judges, the most by any Congress in 35 years. Overall, they helped make the 305 Obama-nominated judges the most diverse group ever.

“What Obama has done within terms of his judicial legacy is what no other president has ever done before and it’s doubtful that any future president is going to match it,” says Sheldon Goldman, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “Obama has diversified the bench in terms of gender, ethnicity, nationality to an extent never, ever, ever done before.”

In fact, as a recent political science study notes, Obama is “on track to be the first president in U.S. history to have a majority of his judicial nominees be either women or persons of color,” which is especially significant in comparison to the Reagan era, when 85% of appointed judges were white men.

Outside of the diversity, Obama’s judicial legacy is much harder to parse. According to Houston University political scientist Robert A. Carp, who co-wrote the aforementioned study, Obama’s district court judges are deciding cases in a “moderately liberal” or mainstream Democrat way, with the possible exception of labor and economic regulation cases. By comparison, his study says that President George W. Bush’s judges were among the most conservative appointed since 1932. And while having more Democratic-appointed judges helps the chances of liberal causes in the courts, it’s not a slam dunk, court watchers warn.

“It’s a bit of a crapshoot to try to say for sure what the makeup of any panel is going to be,” says Russell Wheeler, a Brookings Institute judicial expert, of the D.C. Circuit Court. “Just getting a Democratic appointee is not a for-sure indicator of how the judge is going to rule. It’s about the best predictor we have but it’s not very good.”

The way in which Obama got some of his judges could also backfire on Democrats down the road. Last year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his colleagues chose to change the rules, lowering the required number of votes from 60 to 51 to push through all judicial nominations with the exception of those for the Supreme Court. If the new Senate Republican majority holds and a Republican is elected in 2016, Goldman expects the GOP to change those rules for the high court too.

“That will mean that there will be no filibustering and they’ll need a simple majority and they’ll be able to get all the Robert Borks in the world that they want to put on the bench,” says Goldman, referring to the contentious Reagan nomination that was rejected by 58 senators in 1987.

“They could say ‘well here’s payback for what you did back in 2013, Democrats,’” adds Wheeler, who thinks a “nuclear option” for Supreme Court nominees is a possibility.

And in the remaining two years of Obama’s rule, Senate Republicans look to enjoy increased leverage to get the judges they want and slowing down anything Obama does. Typically home-state senators have significant input into which judges get appointed; Jennifer Prescod May-Parker, who Obama picked in June 2013 to fill a federal court seat in North Carolina—the country’s longest-running judicial vacancy in the federal district courts at the time, according to a local newspaper—has been blocked by the state’s Republican senator, Richard Burr. But Obama will have to find some way to compromise with the new Senate Republican majority: the past three two-term presidents—Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—confirmed around a fifth of their appellate nominees in their final two years, according to Wheeler.

“To the degree that history is a guide, the confirmation process surely shouldn’t stop, but I suspect it’s going to slow down,” says Wheeler. “You’re not going to see the same pace of confirmations as 2014—I can assure you of that.”

TIME Sports

Obama Says LeBron ‘Did the Right Thing’ for Wearing ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Shirt

Cleveland Cavaliers at Brooklyn Nets
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James in Brooklyn, New York on Dec. 8, 2014. Jason Szenes—EPA

The President tells 'PEOPLE' that more athletes should use their influence to address social issues

President Barack Obama applauded LeBron James in a new interview for wearing a shirt dedicated to Eric Garner during a recent game and said more sports stars should use their influence to address social issues.

James sported a shirt with the phrase “I Can’t Breathe” instead of his jersey on Dec. 8 in a show of support for Garner, the Staten Island man who was killed in an altercation with police in July, during which the officer used an apparent chokehold.

“You know, I think LeBron did the right thing,” Obama told PEOPLE. “We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness.”

James’ decision to wear the shirt came as athletes on a number of other teams did similarly in the wake of the grand jury announcement that the officer involved in the fatal incident would not be indicted, setting off a string of protests against police brutality.

“We went through a long stretch there where [with] well-paid athletes the notion was: just be quiet and get your endorsements and don’t make waves,” Obama said. “LeBron is an example of a young man who has, in his own way and in a respectful way, tried to say, ‘I’m part of this society, too’ and focus attention.”

The President added that he would “like to see” more athletes do that, “not just around this issue, but around a range of issues.”

Read more at PEOPLE

TIME White House

White House Fence Must Be Raised ‘Immediately,’ Report Says

White House Security Secret Service
The White House is seen behind a fence on Oct. 3, 2014 in Washington. Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images

An independent review into the practices of the U.S. Secret Service following several high-profile security breaches this year faults the agency for failing to maintain high training and accountability standards.

The executive summary of the classified report details recommendations for the beleaguered agency, which allowed a mentally disturbed man armed with a knife to enter the Executive Mansion, but also notes broad shortcomings to its readiness and training capabilities. On a practical level, it called for raising the fence surrounding the White House immediately following the security breach.

“We recognize all of the competing considerations that may go into questions regarding the fence, but believe that protection of the President and the White House must be the higher priority,” the report states. “As the Executive Branch, Congress, and the Service itself have all recognized, the fence must be addressed immediately.”

The report suggests that raising the fence at least “four or five feet would be materially helpful,” adding that it should be redesigned to eliminate horizontal bars and to potentially curve outward at the top to deter would-be fence-climbers and to give officers more time to respond to a would-be threat. The fence should be replaced around the entire 18-acre complex, not just along Pennsylvania Avenue, where most of the incidents have occurred, the report states.

Prepared by two former Justice Department officials and two former White House aides at the request of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, the report faults the department for failing to maintain adequate training standards. The Presidential Protective Division’s so-called “fourth shift,” which is supposed to allow the specialized agents charged with protecting the president to spend two weeks of every eight in training, has “diminished far below acceptable levels,” along with training for the agency’s Uniformed Division, which protects the White House complex. According to the report, apart from basic firearms and career training, the average agent received just 42 hours of training in fiscal year 2013, while the average uniformed division officer received under 25 minutes of training in the entire year.

“The panel’s recommendations are astute, thorough and fair,” Johnson said in a statement, saying Acting Director Joe Clancy has already implemented some of the recommendations.

The report details staffing shortfalls at the White House, where agents and officers have been assigned long duty tours and extended overtime shifts. “Rather than invest in systems to manage the organization more effectively and accurately predict its needs, the Service simply adds more overtime for existing personnel,” the report states, saying the two divisions are “stretched beyond their limits.” “Rather than sending its agents and officers to training, it keeps them at their posts.”

The panel calls on Congress and the Executive Branch to free up money to immediately hire 85 special agents and 200 Uniformed Division officers to allow for more time to be devoted to training, with a further review to determine whether any more are needed.

The report calls on the next director to come from outside the Secret Service, a shift that it says is needed to inject new leadership to address a culture of unaccountability. “The next director of the Secret Service should be a strong leader from outside the agency who has a protective, law enforcement, or military background and who can drive cultural change in the organization and move the Secret Service forward into a new era: The need to change, reinvigorate, and question long-held assumptions-from within the agency itself-is too critical now for the next director to be an insider,” the report states.

The new director must “must build a new budget from the ground up by defining its mission, determining what it will take to achieve it, and asking for that,” rather than working off what it believes it can get through the budget process. The panel says new steps must be taken to ensure that agency leadership and managers are open to suggestions and criticism of department practices by agents and officers in the field, and to ensure that the Secret Services’ disciplinary processes are followed and enforced in a fair and consistent fashion.

TIME Cuba

White House Open to Raul Castro Visit

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro during the official memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium, Dec. 10, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro during the official memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium, Dec. 10, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

President Barack Obama is not ruling out meeting Cuban President Raul Castro at the White House, as his administration works to restore ties to the communist country.

A day after the president announced the beginning of efforts to normalize relations with Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Obama would be willing to host the Cuban leader, comparing it to visits from leaders from other countries with checkered human rights records.

“The president has had the leaders of both Burma and China to the United States, and for that reason, I wouldn’t rule out a visit from President Castro,” Earnest said Thursday.

The two leaders spoke on the phone for nearly an hour on Tuesday evening reviewing the agreement to release American subcontractor Alan Gross and to take steps scale back the longstanding American embargo and travel ban. The two met briefly in South Africa last year at a memorial for Nelson Mandela.

In an interview with ABC News Wednesday, Obama wouldn’t rule a trip himself to Cuba. “I don’t have any current plans, but let’s see how things evolve,” he told David Muir. In a statement Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said he was planning to visit Cuba. “I look forward to being the first Secretary of State in 60 years to visit Cuba,” he said.

 

TIME White House

Obama Calls into Public Radio Show Hosted by Gov. Deval Patrick

Deval Patrick
Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick gestures during a news conference at the Statehouse in Boston, Jan. 22, 2014. Charles Krupa—AP

“This is Barack Obama, formerly of Somerville"

President Obama, who introduced himself as “Barack Obama, formerly of Somerville,” called into a Massachusetts radio show on Wednesday to praise his friend, the outgoing Gov. Deval Patrick.

“Governor, this is Barack Obama, formerly of Somerville and I’ve got a few complaints about service in and around the neighborhood,” President Obama said before noting that he had “moved down South since that time.”

Obama lived in the Boston area while attending Harvard Law School, but obviously now calls 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. home. There, mostly likely, “service” isn’t really an issue.

On the call, Patrick immediately asked if it was an impersonator.

“I want to find out how it is that you got Massachusetts so strong and moving in the right direction,” Obama quipped, mispronouncing the state name.

Patrick replied: “Mr. President, you know I love you, but you still have trouble saying Massachusetts. You know that don’t you?”

The President’s call came during Patrick’s final appearance as governor on Boston Public Radio, where a host didn’t hesitate to ask whether or not he had paid of the slew of parking tickets he had acquired while studying at Harvard. The President also wished listeners a happy holidays.

After he hung up, a host can be heard asking “Was that Jay Pharoah?” referencing the Saturday Night Live comedian who often impersonates Mr. Obama.

[WGBH]

TIME intelligence

White House Doesn’t Rule Out Cybercounterattack in Sony Hack

Calls it a "serious national security matter"

The White House is treating the massive hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment as a “serious national security matter” and is currently devising a “proportional response” to the cyberattack, press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday.

Earnest said there have been a number of daily meetings at the White House about the hack, and that there are “a range of options that are under consideration right now” for a response. Earnest would not rule out a U.S. cybercounterattack on those behind the Sony hack, saying officials are mindful of the need for a “proportional response.”

“This is something that’s being treated as a serious national security matter,” he said. “There is evidence to indicate that we have seen destructive activity with malicious intent that was initiated by a sophisticated actor.”

Read more: Everything we know about Sony, The Interview and North Korea

Earnest would not publicly name the “sophisticated actor” behind the attack, even as U.S. officials have linked North Korea to the hack — something Pyongyang has denied. “I’m not in a position to confirm any attribution at this point,” Earnest said.

The incident remains under investigation by the FBI and the National Security Division of the Department of Justice, and Earnest said those efforts are “progressing.” Earnest said it’s unlikely officials will be able to fully disclose the eventual response. “I don’t anticipate that we’ll be in a position where we’re gonna be able to be completely forthcoming about every single element of the response that has been decided upon,” he said.

Asked about Sony’s decision to pull the film The Interview from distribution in response to threats of 9/11-style attacks from hackers, Earnest said: “The White House stands squarely on the side of artists and other private citizens who want to freely express their views.”

Read more: You can’t see The Interview, but TIME’s movie critic did

“This is a decision that Sony should make,” Earnest added. “This is a private company.”

The hack exposed reams of employees’ data and embarrassing email exchanges between executives. It came as Sony was preparing to release The Interview, which has been fiercely criticized by North Korea for depicting a fictional assassination attempt of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un. With a growing number of movie theaters saying they wouldn’t screen the film amid the threads of attack, Sony canceled its release late Wednesday.

“Administration officials were consulted about the film prior to its release at the request of the company that was producing the movie,” Earnest said, confirming that officials had screened the film.

TIME White House

Obama Gives ‘Christmas Clemency’ to 20

Presiden Obama at the White House Dec. 12, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Presiden Obama at the White House Dec. 12, 2014 in Washington, DC. Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

Advocates and scholars call this clemency a "drop in the bucket"

President Obama quietly changed the lives of 20 people on Wednesday, granting what has come to be known as “Christmas clemency” to Americans tangled up in the criminal justice system. But advocates for less punitive sentencing say there’s still much work to be done in order to grant reprieves.

Obama granted 12 pardons to people convicted of various crimes from 1964 to 1997: possession of an unregistered distillery, counterfeiting, and conspiracy to transport a stolen car. Obama also commuted the sentences of eight federal prisoners serving lengthy sentences for drug crimes. None claim to be innocent, but they argued that they’ve served their time. In many cases, the crimes would not have received the same punishment if they were committed today.

It was welcome news for the eight prisoners, who will be out from behind bars by June. One of those who received a commutation was Barbara Scrivner, who has served nearly 20 years of a 30-year sentence for crimes related to methamphetamine. Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums says she received an email from Scrivner on Wednesday with at least eight exclamation points expressing her excitement.

“It’s like the river has been frozen and it’s finally breaking up,” says Stewart, whose organization has been working on clemency for nearly two decades.

Still she argues that the water still isn’t quite flowing as it could be.

The U.S. Pardon Attorney’s office has received 15,646 petitions for commutation thus far in Obama’s presidency (since 2009). In 2014 alone, the Pardon Attorney received 6,561 applications. Throughout Obama’s time in office, a total of 6,596 petitions have been denied while only 18 have been granted.

Though Obama has granted more commutations than Presidents Reagan, Bush who commuted 13 and 11 prisoners, respectively, considering how many prisoners are behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses who could qualify for clemency, Doug Berman, a professor of law at Ohio State University, refers the grants like the ones from yesterday “holiday crumbs.”

“If [Obama] does this every day for the rest of his tenure, he can catch up with the backlog,” Berman says.

That’s not to say nothing has been done about it. Legislation to address the sentencing disparities for controlled substances passed Congress early in Obama’s tenure. Expanded sentencing reform has been introduced and several states have already moved to curb the practice of issuing harsh mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent crimes. The President, through the Department of Justice, has made tackling the harsh sentences drug offenders face as thanks to tough-on-crime laws of the past a priority. New guidelines on sentencing have been issued to judges. And just last year, Obama released the sentences of eight federal crack-cocaine offenders who could have gotten shorter sentences if they were punished under the updated law.

The grants from yesterday also fit neatly into the criteria laid out in the Department of Justice’s clemency initiative of 2014, which prioritizes non-violent, low-level offenders who’ve served at least 10 years, and have no significant criminal history. Legal advocacy groups joined together following that announcement to launch Clemency Project 2014, which has been actively screening inmates for clemency consideration and pairing inmates with attorneys who can help them get applications to the agency. As of Oct. 31, over 25,000 inmates have applied; a little over 5,000 were automatically disqualified.

But, the announcement of that project led many to believe clemency grants would be more regular and substantial. So far, Wednesday’s announcement is all that has come.

At least, it helps that the grants from Wednesday had some teeth to them, says P.S. Ruckman, a political science professor who runs a popular blog on pardons. “These register on the impact scale,” he says, though he still considers Obama among the least merciful Presidents in modern history. Ruckman also notes that while holidays are a nice time for the President to grant pardons and commutations, they don’t have to be the only time.

Ezekiel Edwards, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s criminal law project and a member of Clemency Project 2014’s steering committee, said Wednesday’s announcement is definitely encouraging.

“These are the kind of cases or people we have been screening for,” Edwards says. “I hope the President continues to exercise his authority to help more prisoners in the coming months.”

In the end, advocates argue the criminal justice system would be best served if the root problem—the harsh sentences too many nonviolent offenders face—were properly addressed.

“[Clemency] is not the only answer,” Edwards says. “We’re going to continue to look at reforms today so that in 20 years, 30 years, and 40 years we do not have to submit these kind of petitions.”

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