Each Friday, we’ll bring you updates on the latest civil liberties news from Maine and the nation.

Filling in the Cracks: Obama Commutes Prison Terms For 8 With Crack Cocaine Convictions

Yesterday, President Obama took an important step toward ending our country’s misguided war on drugs. He commuted the prison terms of eight individuals who were sentenced under an old law that treated crack cocaine offenses more harshly than powder cocaine ones. In a prepared statement issued Thursday Obama stated: “If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society.”

 The current law that Obama is referencing is the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine offences from 100:1 to 18:1. In May of this year, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the FSA should apply retroactively.

 In terms of law enforcement, no class of drug is as racially whackas crack. Crack arrestees are much more likely to be Black than white, despite the fact that the majority of crack users are white. The ACLU’s November 2013 Report “A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses” finds that in the federal system, Blacks were sentenced to life-without-parole for nonviolent crimes at 20 times that rate of whites.

Victory! New Mexico, 16th State to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

When will marriage equality be a reality nationwide? Yesterday, the New Mexico Supreme Court brought us one step closer to that target, ruling that the New Mexico constitution requires the state to guarantee same-sex couples the right to marry.  

Laura Schauer Ives, the ACLU-New Mexico Legal Director who represented the plaintiffs, stated: “This truly is a historic and joyful day for New Mexico. As a state, we have always strived to treat all families with dignity and respect, and today’s decision allowing loving, committed same sex couples to marry continues that tradition. The more than 1000 same-sex couples who have already married in New Mexico can now rest certain knowing their marriages will be recognized and respected by our state.” Read more about the landmark case here. 

The next marriage battleground state is Ohio, where gay marriage supporters say that they have collected enough petition signatures to put the issue on the 2014 ballot.

Rewriting the Uniform Code of Military Justice to Address Sexual Assault:

 It’s about time! Late Thursday night, the Senate voted 84 to 15 to pass a $625.1 billion Pentagon bill. The bill includes changes to laws governing sexual assault and rape – the first change to these laws in years.

 The bill is an important step. It provides a victim’s advocate to every service member who reports sexual assault. It also makes it a crime to retaliate against individuals who report assaults, and prevents commanding officers from overturning sexual assault verdicts.  However, it does not include the most controversial proposals concerning new rights for victims.

 Why now? There was a near 50% increase in sexual assault complaints (3,553 total) reported in the first three quarters of this fiscal year as compared with the same period a year earlier. Many victims do not have enough support to come forward, or do not trust that the chain of command will do anything. The Pentagon has estimated that 26,000 members of the military may have been sexually assaulted last year.

Today, Obama ordered a review of the military’s response to sexual assault, giving military leaders until December 1, 2014 to show progress in responding to the crime. "If I do not see the kind of progress I expect, then we will consider additional reforms that may be required to eliminate this crime from our military ranks," the president said in a statement.