Justice Department Clemency Criteria Praised

   WASHINGTON, D.C. -- (ACLU) - 4/23/2014 - Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced on April 23 a new set of criteria the Justice Department and White House will use when considering clemency petitions from federal prisoners. The new criteria will help the Justice Department identify federal prisoners who, if sentenced under current sentencing laws and policies, would likely have received a substantially lower sentence.
   "Our federal sentencing laws have shattered families and wasted millions of dollars," said Vanita Gupta, ACLU deputy legal director. "Too many people—particularly people of color—have been locked up for far too long for nonviolent offenses. The President now has a momentous opportunity to correct these injustices in individual cases.
   If we're ever going to see truly systemic and smart reform of the federal criminal justice, however, we need Congress to step up and pass the Smarter Sentencing Act."​
   Clemency Project 2014, a working group composed of the Federal Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association, and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, as well as individuals active within those organizations, wholeheartedly supports Cole’s announcement and the Justice Department's plans to restore the integrity of the clemency process.
   "The doors of the Office of the Pardon Attorney have been closed to petitioners for too long. This announcement signals a truly welcome change; the culture of "no" that has dominated that office is being transformed," said Mary Price, FAMM General Counsel. "We stand ready to assist in any way we can to support petitioners and bring their cases to the attention of the President."  
   Clemency Project 2014 launched in January after Deputy Attorney General James Cole asked the legal profession to provide pro bono assistance to federal prisoners who would likely have received a shorter sentenced if they'd been sentenced today.
   "Clemency Project 2014 marks the beginning of the end of the age of mass incarceration. We must seize this historic opportunity to start the process of remedying decades of cruel and unnecessarily harsh sentencing policies. I call upon the nation’s lawyers, especially the criminal defense bar, to rise to this challenge in an unprecedented effort to restore hope and the prospect of an early return to freedom for the countless deserving individuals who are languishing in federal custody.," NACDL President Jerry Cox said.
   Clemency Project members will collaborate to recruit and train attorneys on how to screen for prisoners who meet the criteria laid out by the deputy attorney general. Pursuant to the criteria announced today, candidates eligible for clemency must be:
  • serving a federal sentence;
  • serving a sentence that, if imposed today, would be substantially shorter;
  • have a non-violent history with no significant ties to organized crime, gangs or cartels;
  • have served at least 10 years;
  • have no significant prior convictions;
  • and have demonstrated good conduct.
   "Federal defenders have advocated for reform of the criminal justice system for many years, and we wholeheartedly endorse the President's commitment to lowering the sentences of prisoners who are serving unduly harsh sentences through the clemency process," said Michael Nachmanoff, Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of Virginia. "In recent years, federal defenders have assisted thousands of defendants to reunite with their families through the crack retroactivity process, and we are eager to work with the other organizations affiliated with the Clemency Project 2014 to help many others serving unfair sentences that would not be imposed today."
   While Clemency Project 2014 will focus on those cases that clearly fit the broad criteria described by Deputy Attorney General Cole, the groups stress that there are many other federal prisoners whose sentences are grossly disproportionate to the crimes for which they were convicted. The groups will continue to urge the Department of Justice and President Obama to vastly expand use of the clemency power to correct widespread injustice. Similarly, each organization participating in the Project supports legislative action to curtail sentencing laws that continue to cause unjust sentences.
   Clemency Project 2014 looks forward to support and participation from other legal and community advocacy groups, and gratefully recognizes the early support of the National Action Network, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, as well as state bar associations, including the New York State Bar Association, before which Deputy Attorney General Cole first announced this initiative last January.
   Lawyers interested in volunteering for the project may do so by writing to clemencyproject@nacdl.org

Atlas details gene activity of prenatal brain

   (NIH) - 4/12/2014 - A comprehensive three-dimensional atlas of the developing human brain that incorporates gene activity along with anatomical reference atlases and neuroimaging data has released its first major report online in Nature. This National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded resource, available to the public, enables researchers to answer questions related to the early roots of brain-based disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.
   This big science endeavor, which highlights the transcriptome — when and where genes are turned on in the brain — and anatomy of the human brain during mid-term pregnancy, was undertaken at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. It is the first installment of a consortium project funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), part of the NIH, called the BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Human Brain, which aims to profile gene activity throughout the course of brain development.
   “Many neuropsychiatric diseases are likely the result of abnormal brain development during prenatal life,” said lead author Ed Lein, Ph.D., of the Allen Institute. “An anatomically precise molecular atlas of the brain during this time period is a first step to understanding how the human brain develops normally and what can go wrong.”
   Although animal studies have provided invaluable insights in the basic mechanisms of brain function, there are limitations that make studies based on human tissues, which are very difficult to obtain, incredibly important. One key area is the neocortex, the outermost brain region involved in higher functions such as action and thought. The neocortex is smooth in rodents; in humans and non-human primates, it is much more complexly organized, elaborately folded into grooves and wrinkles called sulci and gyri.
   Further differences in developmental compartments of this area exist between humans and non-human primates. The aim of this highly detailed atlas was to analyze all genes at this level of granularity, allowing meaningful analysis of the molecular underpinnings of human cortical development. Many psychiatric disorders show altered gene activity in the cortex, possibly highlighting changes that occurred during development of this region.
   Lein and other researchers studied four donated, intact, high-quality human prenatal brains from preterm stillbirths — two from 15–16 weeks and two from 21 weeks post-conception – as a framework for their atlas. Contributing labs provided data from a variety of genomic and imaging techniques.
   The BrainSpan Atlas aims to inspire new hypotheses regarding human brain development, and has already led to some surprising findings. For example, the study authors found significant differences between mouse and human brains in the subplate zone, a developmentally transient structure critical for proper cortical development. On the other hand, the researchers expected to find a unique molecular signature for the outer portion of the subventricular zone, an area which is not found in mice and which contains a hugely expanded pool of neuronal stem cells that give rise to our greatly expanded neocortex. Surprisingly, despite its much larger size, no significant differences were found between this zone and the inner portion of this layer that is conserved from mouse to human.
   “The BrainSpan Atlas becomes very powerful when one can understand where and when a particular gene is used — for instance, is it active in precursor cells or in the neurons derived from them?” Lein said, who gave the example that autism candidate genes are expressed very early in in the cortex. Knowledge of the time and location of these genes may lead to future treatment targets and early interventions for this brain disorder, he added.
   The BrainSpan Atlas already is making inroads in research surrounding human brain development and disease.
   “Although the many genes associated with autism and schizophrenia don’t show a clear relationship to each other in the adult brain, the BrainSpan Atlas reveals how these diverse genes are connected in the developing brain,” said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D. “Findings of what goes on early in the prenatal brain can lead to the development of biomarkers for diagnosing brain disorders and for matching patients to treatment options most likely to be successful.
   “This atlas is a clear example of the progress that can be made when the public and private sectors work together,” Insel said. “On this first anniversary of the BRAIN Initiative, we are encouraged to see the impact the BrainSpan Atlas is already making on brain research.”
   The resource is freely available for viewing, searching, and data mining for gene activity patterns as part of the BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Human Brain Developing Human Brain , and can also be found via the Allen Brain Atlas data portal Allen Brain Atlas data portal .
   Source: National Institutes of Health



Drug Sentencing Guidelines May Be Reduced

   WASHINGTON – 4/12/2014 - The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted on April 11 to reduce sentencing guidelines for certain people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. The amendment would reduce the average sentence for drug traffickers by 11 months, by lowering the drug sentencing guidelines two levels. Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed the change during testimony before the commission last month.
   "Our country is slowly but steadily reversing the damage done by the failed, racially biased war on drugs," ACLU Senior Legislative Counse Jesselyn McCurdy said. "The actions taken by the Sentencing Commission . . . are another positive move toward reducing unnecessarily long sentences that have led to bloated, overcrowded prisons. Our criminal justice system is smarter, fairer, and more humane than it was a year ago, and we need to make sure momentum continues in the right direction."
   The amendment, along with several others that were passed, will go to Congress for its approval on May 1. Congress has six months to introduce and pass legislation to stop the proposed changes before they become law on November 1.
   Source: American Civil Liberties Union

Study: Obesity Primes the Colon for Cancer

   (NIH) - 4/5/2014 - Obesity, rather than diet, causes changes in the colon that may lead to colorectal cancer, according to a study in mice by the National Institutes of Health. The finding bolsters the recommendation that calorie control and frequent exercise are not only key to a healthy lifestyle, but a strategy to lower the risk for colon cancer, the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States.
   Paul Wade, Ph.D., and Thomas Eling, Ph.D., scientists at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of NIH, led a collaborative team that made the discovery. The study appeared online April 1 in the journal Cell Metabolism.
   A large body of scientific literature says people who are obese are predisposed to a number of cancers, particularly colorectal cancer, Eling said. To better understand the processes behind this link, he and his colleagues fed two groups of mice a diet in which 60 percent of the calories came from lard. The first group of mice contained a human version of a gene called NAG-1, which has been shown to protect against colon cancer in other rodent studies. The second group lacked the NAG-1 gene.
   The NAG-1 mice did not gain weight after eating the high-fat diet, while mice that lacked the NAG-1 gene grew plump.
  The researchers noticed another striking difference between the two groups of animals.
   “The obese mice exhibited molecular signals in their gut that led to the progression of cancer, but the NAG-1 mice didn’t have those same indicators,” Eling said.
   The researchers looked for molecular clues, by isolating cells from the colons of the mice and analyzing a group of proteins called histones. Histones package and organize DNA in a cell’s nucleus, and sometimes undergo a process known as acetylation, in which chemical tags bind to their surface. The pattern of acetylation varies depending on the chemical processes taking place in the cell.
   Wade explained that the acetylation patterns for the obese mice and the thin NAG-1 mice were drastically different. Patterns from the obese mice resembled those from mice with colorectal cancer. The additional weight they carried also seemed to activate more genes that are associated with colorectal cancer progression, suggesting the obese mice are predisposed to colon cancer.
   “Any preexisting colon lesions in these animals are more likely to evolve rapidly into malignant tumors,” Wade said. “The same thing may happen in humans.”
   Wade and Eling want to find out exactly how obesity prompts the body to develop colorectal cancer. Wade said that the likely candidates for triggering tumor growth in the colon are fat cells, but there are many more possibilities. Finding these cellular switches may give rise to production of medications to keep people from getting colorectal cancer.
   “Once we identify the signaling pathways and understand how the signal is transduced, we may be able to design ways to treat colorectal cancer in obese patients,” Wade said.
  Source: National Institutes of Health

The Arms Debate

Not All American's Have the Right to Bear Arms

Photo by Steve Rensberry (c) 2018