TIME Sony

State Department Insists North Korea Behind Sony Hack

But the inside-job theory is gaining steam among outside experts

The U.S. government remains convinced the North Korean government was behind last month’s massive Sony hack, despite outside reports alleging an employee of the company may have been involved.

“The United States government has concluded that the North Korean government is responsible for this attack,” State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told reporters. “And we stand by that conclusion. “

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is leading the investigation in conjunction with other U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies, announced on December 19 that the rogue regime was responsible for the hack. But doubts have simmered among outside security experts, in part because the government has acknowledged withholding some of the evidence that led to the conclusion.

The FBI said it would not share its complete analysis of the evidence pointing to North Korea. “The need to protect sensitive sources and methods precludes us from sharing all of this information,” the bureau said. Publicly, the FBI has indicated the attack mimicked previous North Korean intrusions on South Korean systems, adding the “data-deletion malware” used in the attack was similar to other code experts have attributed to North Korean-allied hackers and attempted to “ping” internet protocol addresses linked to the country.

As a result, private cybersecurity experts have expressed continued doubts about the link to North Korea. “We can’t find any indication that North Korea either ordered, masterminded or funded this attack,” Kurt Stammberger, a vice president at Norse security in California, told the Los Angeles Times. Stammberger told the paper that he had briefed law-enforcement officials on the theory that the massive hack was an inside job.

But the inside-job theory has holes of its own. Outside analysts have only been given limited access to the malware and details of the Sony hack, and have failed to offer conclusive evidence that the U.S. government’s conclusions are wrong. “It’s not that it’s not possible. It’s just that it’s ambiguous,” Mark Rasch, a former federal cybercrimes prosecutor, says of the inside-job theory.

A disgruntled IT employee might have both the motive and technical expertise to burrow deep into Sony’s computer networks and extract some 100 terabytes of data, a process that cyberexperts say may have taken weeks or months. The nature of the hack—which spilled personal information about thousands of people and made public the private emails of Sony executives—seemed calibrated to embarrass the company. In their initial email to Sony executives and public statement, the hackers made no mention of “The Interview.” And wiping Sony’s computers, Rasch says, “is a tactic we frequently see in attacks by disgruntled insiders.”

Cybersecurity experts have said from the start that an insider could be involved. “We don’t discount the possibility of an insider,” Jaime Blasco, director of labs at the California-based security firm AlienVault, told TIME earlier this month.

In his end-of-year press conference, President Obama himself placed the blame on North Korea and promised that the U.S. government would respond, but would not discuss the specifics.

“They caused a lot of damage, and we will respond,” Obama said. “We will respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose.”

TIME justice

The Growing Republican Divide on Criminal Justice Reform

Charles Koch
Charles Koch, head of Koch Industries, on Feb 27, 2007. Bo Rader—Wichita Eagle/MCT via Getty Images

GOP leaders are embracing reform, but the base remains committed to the party's law-and-order roots

Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialist and Republican Party donor, says he will make criminal justice reform a major cause in 2015. “Over the next year, we are going to be pushing the issues key to this, which need a lot of work in this country,” Koch said in an interview with the Wichita Eagle.

Koch is a big spender—and something of a bogeyman among many liberals—so this made news. The “conservative mega-donor,” a Politico story blared, “is opening his wallet on an unexpected issue.”

Except it shouldn’t be unexpected. Koch is a libertarian, and libertarians have a history of opposing policies, such as mandatory minimum sentencing, that have made the U.S. incarceration rate the highest in the world. What’s perhaps more surprising is how Republican politicians from other parts of the spectrum are beginning to embrace criminal justice reform as well.

Over the past few years, GOP leaders in Washington and around the country have seized on justice reform as an issue that is both good policy and good politics. This view places them in conflict with many Republican voters, who still hew to the law-and-order beliefs on which the party had long been united. As a result, criminal-justice policy may emerge as one of the GOP’s key fault lines in 2015, as tensions simmer amid ongoing protests over police behavior and the presidential primary begins to heat up.

Virtually all of the likely 2016 Republican field supports some element of criminal-justice reform. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is the most visible and least surprising proponent; as a libertarian-leaning conservative, he has staked his candidacy on the idea that the GOP must adjust its policies as the composition of the electorate changes. But Paul is hardly the only 2016 hopeful to plant a flag on the issue. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has called for an end to the “failed war on drugs” and signed legislation that sent some offenders to rehab instead of prison.

Rick Perry, the conservative governor of Texas, has been among the nation’s top prison reformers, even winning a national award for his support of drug courts as an alternative to incarceration. Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, another Republican governor eyeing a 2016 bid, pushed legislation that would boost the state’s drug rehab program and make some nonviolent offenders eligible for early release.

Conservatives in Congress also have an appetite for reform. Paul Ryan produced a white paper on poverty that includes proposals like giving judges sentencing flexibility for nonviolent offenders and letting some inmates earn time off their prison stays for successful participation in programs. Mike Lee, a Republican senator from Utah and a Tea Party favorite, was one of the original sponsors, with liberal senators Dick Durbin and Pat Leahy, of a bill called the Smarter Sentencing Act, which attempts to curtail the draconian sentencing that has left some 2.2 million Americans behind bars. Among the Republicans who have since signed on: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, another presidential hopeful.

Why have Republicans come around on law-and-order issues? Part of it is politics. As the country grows younger and more diverse, GOP leaders grasp the need to reach out to the minority groups who are disproportionately affected by the excesses of the justice system. It’s no surprise that Ryan, who knows firsthand how a lack of minority support can erode the viability of the Republican presidential ticket, spent time touring inner cities after 2012—nor that Paul, who hopes to avoid the same fate in ’16, launched a listening tour of his own.

There is also, Republicans note, a conservative case for overhauling a bloated prison system that drains resources and divides families. “You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money,” Perry said. A group called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty inveighs against the failures of capital punishment, a process riddled with “waste, inaccuracy and bias” that “does not square up with conservative ideology.”

But the GOP base—which is older and whiter and wealthier than the average America, and thus less likely to be ensnared by the system—has been slower to embrace these ideas. And the bitter national debate catalyzed by the recent deaths of black men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner looks likely to impede the process.

Police behavior is a different thing than, say, eliminating mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders—a point on which even the majority of Republicans agree. But the debate has revealed the degree to which law-and-order attitudes dominate in Republican circles.

Polls reveal that perspectives on police behavior break along partisan lines almost as sharply as racial ones. If Republicans are less likely to accept the prevalence of police misconduct (and they are), it follows that they would be less likely to buy into the notion that the system requires reform. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey, eight in 10 white Republicans said the Brown and Garner cases were isolated incidents, and a similar percentage say they are “confident that police treat blacks and whites equally.”

As long as support for cops stays sacrosanct among primary voters, criminal-justice reform is unlikely to become a campaign rallying cry during the GOP primary, even in a field that predominantly supports it. The Republican Party is evolving on criminal justice. But politicians will still talk on the trail about what voters want to hear.

TIME Transportation

JetBlue Offers Police Free Flights to Attend Slain NYPD Officers’ Funerals

JetBlue Airways Corp. planes sit docked at the gates of Terminal 5 as another of the company's jets lands at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Jan. 28, 2014.
JetBlue Airways Corp. planes sit docked at the gates of Terminal 5 as another of the company's jets lands at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Jan. 28, 2014. Craig Warga—Bloomberg/Getty Images

It's also offering free flights to other law enforcement agencies who wish to "support their brethren"

JetBlue Airways is offering free flights to relatives and two members of any American law enforcement agency who wish to attend the funerals of the two New York policemen fatally ambushed by a gunman last weekend.

Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were sitting in a patrol car Saturday when authorities say they were shot by a man identified as Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who then turned the gun on himself in a nearby subway station. The airline is also offering free air travel for two officers in any U.S. law enforcement agency who want to attend the services, CBS News reports.

“We’re honored to do what we can to support the communities we serve, and our team has made flights available to law enforcement agencies across our route network who wish to send representatives to New York to support their brethren,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.

(READ: TIME’s Q&A with Former New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly)

JetBlue says it is working with another airline to help fly some of Liu’s family members in from China for his funeral, which has not yet been scheduled. Thousands of law enforcement officials and Vice Present Joe Biden are expected to attend Ramos’ funeral on Saturday.

[CBS News]

TIME Hong Kong

Billionaire Hong Kong Tycoon and Former Official Jailed for Corruption

In this photo taken through a tinted glass, former Hong Kong Chief Secretary Rafael Hui, right, is escorted by a staff member from Hong Kong Correctional Services inside a van outside the High Court in Hong Kong on Dec. 19, 2014 Vincent Yu—AP

Case seen as a victory for transparency in China's freewheeling financial hub

The former No. 2 official in the Hong Kong government, Rafael Hui, and billionaire Thomas Kwok — until last week co-chairman of the world’s second largest property developer by market value, Sun Hung Kai — were sentenced Tuesday to 7½ and five years in prison respectively on graft charges.

Hui was ordered to pay the Hong Kong government $1.4 million, equivalent to the bribe he had been found guilty of accepting from Kwok, the South China Morning Post reports.

The two are the most prominent Hong Kongers to date to be snared by the city’s Independent Commission Against Corruption. They were found guilty last week of colluding in the early to middle part of the past decade to ensure advantages for Sun Hung Kai.

“It is vitally important in these times the Hong Kong government and business community remain and are seen to remain corruption-free,” said Judge Andrew Macrae, before delivering his sentence on the 66-year-old Hui and 63-year-old Kwok.

Kwok’s top aide Thomas Chan and ex-stock-exchange official Francis Kwan were also sentenced to six and five years respectively. His brother Raymond Kwok was acquitted of all charges.

[SCMP]

TIME justice

Milwaukee Officer Will Not Face Charges in Unarmed Man’s Death

Officer Christopher Manney shot Dontre Hamilton 14 times, eight months ago

A former Milwaukee police officer will not face charges in the shooting death of an unarmed man in a city park, authorities said Monday.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm called the death of Dontre Hamilton, who is black, “tragic” but said evidence and witness accounts supported claims by Officer Christopher Manney, who is white, that he acted in self-defense.

“This was a tragic incident for the Hamilton family and for the community,” Chisholm said in a report published Monday by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “But, based on all the evidence and analysis presented in this report, I come to the conclusion that Officer Manney’s use of force in this incident was justified self-defense and that defense cannot be reasonably overcome to establish a basis to charge Officer Manney with a crime.”

Officer Christopher Manney shot and killed Dontre Hamilton in late April, following a struggle that ensued after Manney approached Hamilton, who was sleeping in the park.

Workers at a nearby Starbucks kiosk called the police to complain about Hamilton. Two officers checked on him before Manney arrived, according to the report. According to witnesses, at one point Hamilton grabbed the officer’s baton from him and hit him with it. The officer fired his weapon 14 times.

The police department terminated Manney’s employment, but Hamilton’s family was hoping he would face criminal charges.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, an attorney for the family says they are pursuing Federal charges. In a statement, the attorney made connections to the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

[Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]

TIME Law Enforcement

FBI Inquiry Finds Rampant Mishandling of Evidence

An internal probe found the bureau is holding two tons more drugs than records showed

An internal review of the FBI’s evidence handling procedures found a system rife with serious errors, according to a new report, including evidence mislabeled, mishandled or lost altogether, and in every region of the United States.

The survey of more than 41,000 pieces of evidence found the FBI holding less money but more guns and drugs than records indicated, the New York Times reports. Officials say most problems are the result of the FBI’s move in 2012 from a paper-based to a digital accounting system. The review could complicate criminal prosecutions throughout the U.S.

Read more at the Times

TIME intelligence

FBI Accuses North Korea in Sony Hack

North Korean leader Kim inspects the Artillery Company under the KPA Unit 963, in this undated photo released by North Korea's KCNA in Pyongyang
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the Artillery Company under the Korean People's Army Unit 963 in Pyongyang on Dec. 2, 2014 KCNA/Reuters

Fallout led Sony to pull The Interview

The FBI on Friday accused the North Korean government of being behind the devastating hack on Sony Pictures Entertainment that eventually prompted it to cancel the release of The Interview, the first formal statement that the U.S. government has concluded the isolated nation is responsible for the cyberattack.

“The FBI now has enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible,” the bureau said in a statement. “Though the FBI has seen a wide variety and increasing number of cyber intrusions, the destructive nature of this attack, coupled with its coercive nature, sets it apart.”

President Barack Obama, asked Friday about Sony’s decision to pull The Interview, said: “Yes, I think they made a mistake”

The FBI said it determined North Korea was responsible based on an analysis of the malware involved and its similarities to previous attacks the U.S. government has attribute to North Korean-allied hackers, including an assault on South Korean banks and media outlets in 2013. These include “similarities in specific lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks,” the FBI said in its statement. According to the FBI, the malware used in the attack communicated with known North Korean computers. The FBI didn’t furnish evidence to back its assertion that North Korea was involved. North Korea has denied being behind the hack.

Read more: The 7 most outrageous things we learned from the Sony hack

Bureau investigators have been working for weeks with Sony executives and private security experts to investigate the scale and origins of the attack. For Sony, the hack has been devastating: It crippled the studio’s infrastructure, leaked sensitive documents about tens of thousands of employees and contractors, embarrassed executives and resulted in the studio’s decision to pull, The Interview, a movie whose plot centers around the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The film incensed the North Korean government.

Read more: 4 things every single person can learn from the Sony hack

The FBI did not say whether the attack was coordinated from within North Korea or through allies outside the hermit kingdom. The FBI said it could only provide limited information to the public to protect its sources and methods.

President Barack Obama is expected to address the incident on Friday afternoon in a White House news conference. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the administration was treating the incident as a “serious national security matter.”

White House officials have convened daily meetings to discuss the attack and to devise options for a “proportional response,” Earnest said, not ruling out an American counter-attack on North Korean systems.

“The FBI’s announcement that North Korea is responsible for the attack on Sony Pictures is confirmation of what we suspected to be the case: that cyber terrorists, bent on wreaking havoc, have violated a major company to steal personal information, company secrets and threaten the American public,” Chris Dodd, who heads the trade group Motion Picture Association of America, said in a statement. “It is a despicable, criminal act.”

See the full FBI statement:

Today, the FBI would like to provide an update on the status of our investigation into the cyber attack targeting Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE). In late November, SPE confirmed that it was the victim of a cyber attack that destroyed systems and stole large quantities of personal and commercial data. A group calling itself the “Guardians of Peace” claimed responsibility for the attack and subsequently issued threats against SPE, its employees, and theaters that distribute its movies.

The FBI has determined that the intrusion into SPE’s network consisted of the deployment of destructive malware and the theft of proprietary information as well as employees’ personally identifiable information and confidential communications. The attacks also rendered thousands of SPE’s computers inoperable, forced SPE to take its entire computer network offline, and significantly disrupted the company’s business operations.

After discovering the intrusion into its network, SPE requested the FBI’s assistance. Since then, the FBI has been working closely with the company throughout the investigation. Sony has been a great partner in the investigation, and continues to work closely with the FBI. Sony reported this incident within hours, which is what the FBI hopes all companies will do when facing a cyber attack. Sony’s quick reporting facilitated the investigators’ ability to do their jobs, and ultimately to identify the source of these attacks.

As a result of our investigation, and in close collaboration with other U.S. Government departments and agencies, the FBI now has enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible for these actions. While the need to protect sensitive sources and methods precludes us from sharing all of this information, our conclusion is based, in part, on the following:

· Technical analysis of the data deletion malware used in this attack revealed links to other malware that the FBI knows North Korean actors previously developed. For example, there were similarities in specific lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks.

· The FBI also observed significant overlap between the infrastructure used in this attack and other malicious cyber activity the U.S. Government has previously linked directly to North Korea. For example, the FBI discovered that several Internet protocol (IP) addresses associated with known North Korean infrastructure communicated with IP addresses that were hardcoded into the data deletion malware used in this attack.

· Separately, the tools used in the SPE attack have similarities to a cyber attack in March of last year against South Korean banks and media outlets, which was carried out by North Korea.

We are deeply concerned about the destructive nature of this attack on a private sector entity and the ordinary citizens who worked there. Further, North Korea’s attack on SPE reaffirms that cyber threats pose one of the gravest national security dangers to the United States. Though the FBI has seen a wide variety and increasing number of cyber intrusions, the destructive nature of this attack, coupled with its coercive nature, sets it apart. North Korea’s actions were intended to inflict significant harm on a U.S. business and suppress the right of American citizens to express themselves. Such acts of intimidation fall outside the bounds of acceptable state behavior. The FBI takes seriously any attempt – whether through cyber-enabled means, threats of violence, or otherwise – to undermine the economic and social prosperity of our citizens.

The FBI stands ready to assist any U.S. company that is the victim of a destructive cyber attack or breach of confidential business information. Further, the FBI will continue to work closely with multiple departments and agencies as well as with domestic, foreign, and private sector partners who have played a critical role in our ability to trace this and other cyber threats to their source. Working together, the FBI will identify, pursue, and impose costs and consequences on individuals, groups, or nation states who use cyber means to threaten the United States or U.S. interests.

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 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.”

TIME Crime

9 Paintings in Big L.A. Art Heist Are Recovered

Authorities were tipped off about a man in Europe soliciting buyers

Court documents show local and federal authorities have recovered nine works of art that were stolen during a 2008 California heist, one of the largest in Los Angeles history.

Los Angeles police and the FBI launched an undercover operation after being tipped off in September about a man in Europe who was said to be soliciting buyers for the art, which was valued at $10 million but going for $700,000, the Los Angeles Times reports. The works recovered include Diego Rivera’s “Peasants” and a piece by Marc Chagall. They were among a dozen stolen from the home of a wealthy real estate investor in August 2008; three were still missing as of Dec. 1.

Raul Espinoza, 45, was charged with one count of receiving stolen property following the October bust and being held on $5 million bail. He pleaded not guilty at an arraignment on Oct. 27.

[Los Angeles Times]

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser