Blog Posts by Liz Goodwin, Yahoo News

  • Thousands of prisoners apply for Obama’s drug-clemency program

    Offer a chance at presidential mercy, and inmates will line up.

    That’s what the federal government found out last month when more than 18,000 prisoners filled out electronic surveys to apply for reduced sentences from President Barack Obama in a new program designed to clear federal prisons of nonviolent offenders, Yahoo News has learned.

    Federal prisoners are always able to petition the president to have their sentences commuted. But in April, the Justice Department announced a sweeping new initiative that actively solicits these petitions from inmates who have served more than 10 years for a nonviolent crime; most of the crimes are drug-related. The program is intended to give a break to prisoners who were sentenced under now-defunct draconian drug laws that locked up people for decades for nonviolent crimes. 

    The response to the president’s clemency program is staggering. Before this program, about 18,000 federal prisoners had applied for commutations over the previous 12 years

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  • Ancient warrior myths help veterans fight PTSD

    Greek heroes struggled with battle stress, too

    Ajax Defending Greek Ships Against Trojans (Bettmann/CORBIS)
    A soldier returns home from battle but has brought the war with him. He stares off into the distance, unable to take joy in his family or friends, still hyperalert to threats he no longer faces. Unable to heal his invisible wound, he takes his own life. 

    This isn’t a tragic news story about a veteran coming back from Afghanistan with a case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s a summary of the Greek play "Ajax," which is more than 2,000 years old. 

    The Greeks didn’t call it PTSD. But they understood that war brought trauma (from the Greek word meaning “wound”), which left some warriors with a thousand-yard stare long after they returned home. Advocates and the military itself have found that ancient myths and stories like “Ajax” can help veterans and active-duty soldiers cope with the overwhelming psychological stress that the country’s longest war has put on its relatively small volunteer force. 

    The VA estimates that about 1,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are

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  • Pardon attorney steps down as part of drug-offender clemency push

    Controversial Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers is stepping down from his post and will be replaced by a former journalist and nonprofit executive as part of a sweeping overhaul of the federal clemency process.

    Deborah Leff, whose previous post at the Justice Department involved increasing access to lawyers for poor defendants, will take over from Rodgers to shepherd through the thousands of new clemency petitions from nonviolent federal inmates hoping to receive a commutation under the new program.

    The change in leadership represents a new era for the pardon process, as the president prepares to shift from granting the fewest pardons of any modern president in his first term to potentially granting clemency to hundreds or even thousands of nonviolent drug offenders. 

    Under the new initiative announced Wednesday, prison reform advocates will help the Justice Department scour federal prisons for inmates who were sentenced under now-defunct draconian laws that put people away for decades

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  • Obama plans clemency for hundreds of drug offenders

    Barbara Scrivner's long quest for mercy tests a president's will — and her own faith

    Barbara Scrivner with her daughter and grandson. (Courtesy of Barbara Scrivner)

    DUBLIN, Calif—Scrawled on the inside of Barbara Scrivner's left arm is a primitive prison tattoo that says "Time Flies."

    If only that were the case.

    For Scrivner, time has crawled, it's dawdled, and on bad days, it's felt like it's stood completely still. She was 27 years old when she started serving a 30-year sentence in federal prison for selling a few ounces of methamphetamine. Now, 20 years later, she feels like she's still living in the early '90s—she's never seen or touched a cellphone, she still listens to her favorite band, the Scorpions, and she carefully coats her eyelids in electric blue eye shadow in the morning.

    It's out there, outside of prison, where time flies.

    On a sunny afternoon at a federal prison outside San Francisco last month, Scrivner nervously clutched a manila envelope full of photos of herself and her daughter that she keeps in her cell. As she displays the pictures, Scrivner’s daughter Alannah, who was just 2 years old when her mom was put away, changes

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  • Inside a Guantanamo parole hearing

    The prison Obama vowed to close still holds 154 men 12 years after it opened

    On Tuesday morning, a 34-year-old Yemeni, locked up in the Guantanamo Bay military prison for a third of his life without being charged, was given a chance to argue for his release.

    The detainee, Ghaleb Nassar al-Bihani, listened intently to the government’s summary of his case in an air-conditioned trailer on the Cuban military base Tuesday morning. Reporters could observe portions of the proceedings by video in a Defense Department building in Arlington, Va.

    Flanked by a civilian lawyer and a Navy officer, the bearded al-Bihani nervously shuffled papers on the desk in front of him as an anonymous government representative told him he had “almost certainly” been a member of al-Qaida, and would re-engage in extremist activities if he were released. His lawyer countered that he was a kitchen aide for the Taliban who never fought in battle and wanted to start a new life in Latin America or Europe.

    The parolelike process run by the Periodic Review Board was instituted by President Barack

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  • Latinos remain wary of Obamacare as deadline looms

    LOS ANGELES, Calif — Ruben Acosta, a 53-year-old security guard and legal immigrant from Mexico, shoved his fears aside and made a visit to a school administration building in Compton on a Wednesday last week because he wanted health insurance.

    “A lot of Latino people don’t come because they’re afraid,” said Acosta, who brought his wife and 6-year-old granddaughter, a U.S. citizen, to the Covered California enrollment event at the Compton Unified School District. There, people working for the California health care exchange established by the Affordable Care Act sought to enroll members of the demographic group with the lowest rate of insurance coverage in America into the program the president they helped elect said would benefit them.

    It’s been a bit of a challenge. The enrollment of Latinos under Obamacare is turning out to be much harder than anyone expected. The president’s oversight of a massive ramp up in the deportation of undocumented immigrants — nearly 2 million of whom have

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  • Supreme Court’s 3 women question religious argument against birth control

    Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan, part of liberal minority, skeptical of corporate religious rights

    The Supreme Court’s three women closely questioned the argument Tuesday that employers may opt out of providing contraception because it violates their religious beliefs.

    Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — all part of the court’s minority liberal wing — expressed deep skepticism as to whether Oklahoma-based crafts chain Hobby Lobby has religious rights as a corporation, and whether its owners may opt out of providing some forms of birth control to employees because of it.

    “How does a corporation exercise religion?” Sotomayor asked Paul Clement, Hobby Lobby’s lawyer in the case. She raised a spectre: Could for-profit corporations seek to get out of a host of federal statutes, such as those guaranteeing a minimum wage and forbidding discrimination, by claiming they violate their religious beliefs?

    Hobby Lobby says the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protects it from having to provide the "morning after" pill and intrauterine devices to its

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  • Hobby Lobby’s Supreme Court birth control case: 6 things you need to know

    On Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court will hear arguments from crafts store chain Hobby Lobby that Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate violates the religious freedom of the company and its owners.

    The Greens, the evangelical Oklahomans who own Hobby Lobby, argue that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protects them from having to provide the so-called morning after pill and intrauterine devices to their 13,000 employees, as required by the Affordable Care Act. The government counters that it has a compelling interest in requiring all health insurance plans to provide contraceptives to women and that Hobby Lobby’s religious beliefs do not trump their employees’ right to access care.

    The Supreme Court’s decision could dramatically broaden employers’ latitude to object to laws on religious freedom grounds and potentially restrict access to contraception for thousands of women employed by people who share the Greens’ religious objections.

    What are Hobby Lobby’s chances?


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  • Fast-food workers sue McDonald's, claim wage theft

    Fast-food workers from three states are suing McDonald's, claiming a variety of wage theft practices, including forcing workers to clock out but remain at work, docking pay to purchase company-required uniforms and stiffing employees on overtime.

    Two dozen McDonald's workers are named plaintiffs in the six lawsuits filed Wednesday and Thursday in Michigan, California and New York. But if the courts grant the suits class action status, tens of thousands more workers could join.

    “Our clients are among the most economically vulnerable, and they work for a company that earned more than $5 billion in profits,” said Joe Sellers, an attorney who filed the suits in New York and California.

    “We are currently reviewing the allegations in the lawsuits," said McDonald's spokeswoman Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem in a statement. "McDonald’s and our independent franchisees are committed to undertaking a comprehensive investigation of the allegations and will take any necessary actions as they apply to our

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  • Biden touts money for rape kit testing in White House budget

    Vice President Joe Biden proposed $35 million in grant funding on Wednesday afternoon to help clear the hundreds of thousands of backlogged rape kits off the shelves of police stations and labs.

    Biden, who has made countering domestic abuse and sexual assault a cornerstone of his political career, told reporters that testing the backlogged kits helps police track down serial rapists, which provides “the ultimate closure for a woman.”

    Advocates estimate that hundreds of thousands of DNA rape kits taken from victims sit in police precincts and labs, waiting to be tested. Money is often an issue, because each kit costs about $500 to test. Natasha's Justice Project spokeswoman Natasha Alexenko says her organization is raising private funds to help clear a backlog of 2,000 rape kits in Alameda County in California.

    But Biden’s proposed grant money is in the White House budget, which faces a nearly impossible road to passage in the Republican-controlled House. And the additional $35 million

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