TIME justice

Former Prisoners Applaud Program to Help Inmates Go to College

Alphonso Coates college prison education partnership
Patrick Semansky—AP Inmate Alphonso Coats, a participant in the Goucher College Prison Education Partnership, sits in a discussion with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other officials inside the Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup on July 31, 2015, in Jessup, Md.

Glenn Martin knows exactly the kind of difference getting an education can make for a person behind bars. When Martin was 23, he was sentenced to six years in prison for robbery. That time, he told TIME on Friday, was arguably the lowest point in his life.

But a meeting he had with a correction’s officer during his early days behind bars in state prison in New York changed his life. After reviewing his file, the officer suggested that he consider advancing his education and enrolling in college courses.

“That was the first time anyone had ever said to me ‘you should go to college,’” Martin says. “I grew up in [the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn]. I distinctly remember people saying the opposite to me.”

While in prison, Martin was able to earn his associate’s degree through a prison education program called the Consortium of the Niagara Frontier, one of New York’s oldest post-secondary correctional education programs. It was in that program that Martin says he was able to consider all of the possibilities that lie ahead of him in life.

“I started to think of myself differently,” Martin says. “I saw hope beyond being in that prison for six years.”

Now, at 43, Martin serves as the president of Just Leadership USA, an organization aimed at significantly reducing the incarceration rate nationwide by 2030. And it was in that role that Martin was invited to attend an event at a prison in Maryland on Friday, where he participated in a roundtable discussion with the U.S. Attorney General and the Secretary of Education.

As TIME reported earlier this week, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan traveled to the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup to announce that the administration would temporarily grant incarcerated individuals access to federal aid that can help them pay for college. The experimental initiative reverses a 1994 law that blocked state and federal prisoners’ access to Pell Grants which critics say hurt their chances to start over.

The research on the topic of institutional education is clear: according to a 2013 study by the RAND Corporation funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, prisoners who took educational courses behind bars were 43% less likely to return to prison in three years than those who did not. With about 1.5 million Americans behind bars, changing the Pell Grant system could have a major effect.

“America is a nation of second chances. Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are,” Duncan said in a statement.

Through the pilot program, prisoners who are eligible for release within the next five years and otherwise meet the requirements for federal aid could have access to grants to pay for tuition, fees, books, and supplies. Though the program is limited to Pell Grants and does not apply to any other type of aid, those who work in education are hopeful.

Vivian Nixon, the executive director of the College and Community Fellowship an organization that helps formerly incarcerated women get an education, didn’t have a chance to get an education while she was behind bars. When she was in her mid-thirties, Nixon was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for a series of white-collar crimes.

The possibility of being able to further her education while incarcerated gave Nixon hope, but those dreams were dashed when she was transferred to a prison that didn’t offer any post-secondary education courses. After suffering bouts of hopelessness and depression, Nixon started tutoring other women working toward their GED behind bars. Over the past decade and a half, she’s made it her mission to get the federal government to make it easier for prisoners to get an education.

“Education is transformative,” Nixon says. “When people are educated it opens up a whole set of different choices and without the kind of knowledge or confidence that education brings you can easily slip back into the old habits that landed you in prison.”

For Nixon and Martin, who collaborated to form the Education from the Inside Out Coaltion, an organization that aims to increase educational opportunities for prisoners, Friday was a special day. Both of them saw their handwork come to fruition firsthand.

“For [decades] we’ve dealt with this issue in ways that make for good politics, but bad policy,” Martin said. “This is an opportunity to undo some of that.”

TIME justice

Obama Administration Could Expand Pell Grant Eligibility to Prisoners

Arne Duncan Obama prisoners pell grants
Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with President Obama at the White House, in March 2015.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan hinted recently that administration is “developing experimental sites” that would make Pell Grants available to prisoners

The Obama administration could soon unveil a plan that would make federal college grants available to prisoners.

On Monday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hinted during a policy speech that the administration is “developing experimental sites” that would, among other things, make Pell Grants available to “incarcerated adults seeking an independent, productive life after they get out of jail.”

The Wall Street Journal reports the announcement could come as soon as Friday, when Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch are slated to make a joint appearance at a prison in Maryland on Friday.

The move would be the latest attempt by the Obama administration to provide opportunities to prisoners that could help reduce the national recidivism rate. According to Inside Higher Ed, six House Democrats introduced a bill in May that would expand Pell Grant eligibility to those behind bars. Congress blocked prisoners from Pell Grant eligibility in the 1990s.

TIME Criminal Justice

Sheriff Says Sandra Bland Told Jailer of a Previous Suicide Attempt

Bland indicated she had attempted suicide at least once in the past year

Sandra Bland—the African-American woman whose mysterious and sudden death in a Waller County, Tex. jail last week after a traffic stop has incited controversy—told jailers that she had previously attempted suicide, according to information from a closed meeting with Waller County officials on Tuesday.

On a form, Bland indicated that she had attempted suicide over the past year, apparently due to the loss of a baby. At the time of her arrest, however, Bland indicated that she did not feel suicidal. Her mental history remains “a little bit fuzzy,” Rep. Sylvester Turner told The Houston Chronicle.

Forms filled out by Bland at the jail and released by Waller County officials said she had previously attempted suicide over losing her baby, but those documents had several inconsistencies, according to the Associated Press. One form said she took pills in the hopes of killing herself in 2015, and another said the attempt was in 2014. On one form, Bland apparently indicated she had suicidal thoughts over the last year, but in another form said she had not.

Authorities should have put a greater watch on Bland after learning of her suicide attempt, Turner said, illustrating “the need to make sure we provide the care and the interventions for people who are having a behavioral and mental health issues when people are coming into our county jail system.”

An attorney for Bland’s relatives, Cannon Lambert said that there was “no evidence” that she had previously attempted suicide, according to the Associated Press.

Bland’s death was ruled a suicide, but the Waller County District Attorney said it would be given the same amount of scrutiny as a murder investigation. Authorities released a dashcam video of the traffic stop, which included the officer threatening Bland with a stun gun.

Bland had just moved to Texas from Chicago for a temporary position with Prairie View A & M University.

TIME Criminal Justice

Bipartisan Push for Criminal Justice Reform Sets Its Agenda

Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, participates in a session on "Strategic Communication" at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, outside Washington, on February 26, 2015.
NICHOLAS KAMM—AFP/Getty Images Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, participates in a session on "Strategic Communication" at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, outside Washington, on February 26, 2015.

But specifics are a casualty of the search for consensus

A bipartisan coalition leading a landmark push for criminal-justice reform has set its agenda, but many of the details remain to be filled in.

The Coalition for Public Safety, which includes some of the most influential policy groups on the right and left, announced a new campaign Monday to reform sentencing laws and reintegrate offenders back into society.

“We see these ideas as the baseline for how we can reduce the existing prison population,” said Christine Leonard, the group’s executive director, “as well as support individuals coming home.”

The announcement was a sign of how far the movement has come, but also a sign of how much work remains to be done to begin enacting its goals.

The group includes liberal outfits like the Center for American Progress and the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as conservative organizations like Americans for Tax Reform and Right on Crime. The multi-million dollar initiative is underwritten by donors as disparate as Koch Industries and the Ford Foundation. For these fractious factions, the ability to coalesce around a set of policy objectives is no small task. But a casualty of the search for consensus has been specifics.

Read More: Will Congress Reform the Criminal Justice System?

In a conference call Monday with reporters, the group said it would launch a national education campaign to mobilize public support for some of its priorities with the broadest support, including reducing the length of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders, curtailing sentences of life without parole, promoting alternatives to incarceration and removing obstacles that impede transitions back to the workforce for the one-in-three Americans with a criminal record.

But after months of meetings, the recommendations were modest in scope and light on detail. “These reforms are only the beginning of what lawmakers can do,” said Jason Pye, director of messaging and justice reform at the Tea Party-aligned group FreedomWorks.

Nor is it clear that the recommendations will do much to sway them. Despite growing consensus around the need to reform a system that critics call bloated and broken, there has been little little legislative movement. A raft of bipartisan proposals have languished in a divided Congress.

“Some of the other issues are blocked by partisan stalemate. This is one where we actually could move things forward,” said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. “We’re just going to have to defeat the forces of the status quo.”

Organizers acknowledged that threading bills through Congress remains a challenge. The Coalition hopes to make progress by the August congressional recess, when the presidential race will kick into a higher gear and lawmaking will slow even further.

“We’re in a long term marathon here, in terms of where we need to shift the country after two decades of polices that took us in the wrong direction,” Leonard told TIME in an interview. “There is a strong sense of urgency among these partnering organizations to see that we’re making an impact, both in the daily conversations that are happening around dinner tables but also among policy makers.”

But in Washington the forces of inertia increase in accordance with the number of actors. There are are seven organizations involved with the coalition, and it took months of meetings to lay out a general blueprint. There are 535 lawmakers in Congress. Even the most powerful interest groups know that translating public support into tangible reform remains an uphill battle.

“This is not necessarily a road map for a legislative proposal, but it does demonstrate the pathbreaking level of agreement and consensus around a set of issues,” Leonard says. “What we’re anxious about is, why isn’t there more happening?”

TIME psychology

Sympathy (of a Sort) for Aaron Hernandez

Goodbye to all that: Hernandez being arrested on June 25, 2013—his final day as a free man
George Rizer for The Boston Globe Goodbye to all that: Hernandez being arrested on June 25, 2013—his final day as a free man

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

How should a civilized society punish its monsters?

Aaron Hernandez belongs in hell—literally. If the fiery pit really exists, the former New England Patriot who was just sentenced to life without parole for the murder of a friend, is awaiting trial for two earlier murders and is being sued by man whom he allegedly shot in the eye and left for dead, deserves a confirmed reservation in the lowest circle. What Hernandez and a lot of people like him don’t deserve, however, are the prisons in which they are serving their much-deserved sentences—at least in the conditions under which they will serve them.

The news stories that followed Hernandez’s conviction adhered to schadenfreudean form: watch as the man who used to wear number 81 dons the uniform of inmate W106228; watch as the one-time owner of a 7,100 sq. ft. home is locked inside a cell smaller than a parking space. There’s a certain understandable satisfaction in that: Criminal justice is at least partly about retribution—civil society venting its anger at its most uncivil members. And a killer like Hernandez has a lot of anger coming to him. But when does a lot become too much, especially if civil is the way a society wants to remain?

Just how Hernandez will do his lifetime of time is not yet set; a lot will depend on his behavior, his safety, and how much humbling the administrators of the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center outside of Boston believe he needs. But at best he can expect to remain inside his cell 19 hours out of every 24. Solitary confinement is a possibility—and that will mean 23-hour-a-day lockdown with an hour outside in a small, caged recreation area. He will eat his meals alone in his cell.

If Hernandez does wind up so deep in the correctional hole, he won’t be alone. Roughly 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. and an estimated 80,000 of them are either in solitary confinement or some other kind of segregated housing. That includes the more than 3,000 inmates on death row, most of whom remain there for years or decades. That once included too the 151 inmates who have been released from death row since 1973 after wrongful convictions were exposed and overturned. In many states, 23 hours in the cell also means no TV, radio, books, music, magazines, or any other distractions.

Conditions like that may be designed to break the spirit, especially in the case of gang members or other violent prisoners, but they also wreck the mind—and fast. As TIME reported in 2007, electroencephalograms show that it takes only a handful of days in isolation for prisoners’ brain waves to shift to a pattern indicating isolation and delirium. As long ago as 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court condemned solitary confinement for its tendency to leave prisoners in a “semi-fatuous condition,” a form of punishment some investigators now call “no-touch torture.”

Suicide rates are disproportionately high among the punitively entombed, as are hallucinations, violent episodes, panic, paranoia, and self-mutilation. And since it is underlying mental disorders that often land inmates in prison in the first place, the time they spend in the hole only exacerbates the problem.

Not only is this inhumane, it also perverts the criminal justice system. When Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber now serving 21 years on terrorism charges, was preparing to stand trial in 2007, his lawyers challenged his fitness to do so, arguing that the three and a half years he had spent in solitary had rendered him unable to assist in his own defense. It was an argument that availed Padilla little, but it provides a credible avenue for other defense attorneys involved in similar cases.

Worse, inmates who are not serving life terms and are eventually released to the streets after long stretches in segregated confinement are likelier to re-offend violently—a combination of rage and lack of social contact destroying whatever self-regulatory faculties they once had. In 2013, Colorado prison director Tom Clements, who had begun reforming the state’s solitary confinement policies, was gunned down by a former prisoner who went straight from solitary confinement to freedom, a sudden trip across dimensions he was clearly not able to handle. His successor, Rick Raemisch, has continued the reforms and even spent nearly 24 hours in an isolation cell as a way of both sampling the experience and demonstrating his commitment to limiting its use.

Pressure for reform is coming as well from prison staffs—who live every day with the dangers that accrue when violent criminals are driven systematically mad. Last year, the Texas prison guards’ union wrote a letter to the state’s department of criminal justice asking that the use solitary confinement be curbed, that even some death row inmates be integrated into the prison population and that such sanity-preserving privileges as TVs, tablets, and the option of a prison job be more widely offered.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the state had already made impressive progress, reducing the solitary confinement population by 25% since 2006. But that still leaves 7,100 inmates—2,400 of whom have diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses or mental disability—locked away alone. A handful of other states including New York, Colorado, and Mississippi have also begun reforming their solitary confinement policies.

Compassion for monsters is not easy to achieve—and the slope gets slippery fast. Hernandez is one thing, but what about Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is still waiting to see if he will be sentenced to death or life? What about Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols or 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui? Your pure evil may be different from my pure evil, so how do we decide? The only thing all of these criminals have in common is that they once had lives, freedom, and, in the case of Hernandez, fame and great wealth too—and they forfeited it all. We can punish them and pen them without forfeiting an important part of ourselves as well.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Crime

Nearly 1,000 Suspected Gang Members Have Been Arrested in a Federal Crackdown

Of those arrested, 913 were charged with criminal offenses

Federal agents arrested 976 suspected gang members across scores of American cities during a major operation that spanned from late February through the month of March, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) announced Wednesday.

Headed by the ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations unit, the six-week campaign, called Project Wildfire, targeted members of 239 different gangs in 282 cities, with the heaviest focus on Los Angeles, Detroit, Dallas and El Paso, Texas. San Juan, Puerto Rico, was also highly targeted.

“Criminal gangs inflict violence and fear upon our communities, and without the attention of law enforcement, these groups can spread like a cancer,” said ICE director Sarah Saldaña in a statement.

The majority of the people arrested were U.S. citizens, however, the ICE said 199 were foreign nationals.

Of the 976 alleged gang members arrested 913 were charged with criminal offenses, including 19 suspected of murder and an additional 15 suspected of rape or sexual assault.

In addition to the arrests, officials confiscated 82 firearms, 5.2 kg of methamphetamine, 1.5 kg of heroin, 5.6 kg of cocaine and 7.8 kg of marijuana. They seized $379,399 in cash and an estimated $547,534 worth of counterfeit goods.

The operation was part of global initiative called Operation Community Shield that targets transnational street gangs.

[ICE]

TIME Crime

The Strange Story of the Man Who Chose Execution By Firing Squad

Gilmore
Keystone / Getty Images Gary Gilmore pictured in January of 1977

How Gary Gilmore's 1977 execution came to pass

Firing squads have returned to the headlines this week, as Utah took steps toward allowing that method of execution if other options become unavailable. Even though some experts say firing squads are an effective method of carrying out capital sentences, the majority of Americans are put off by the idea.

But when Utah executed a Death Row inmate by firing squad four decades ago, citizens felt very differently about it. In 1976, when Gary Mark Gilmore was sentenced to death by firing squad, TIME reported that dozens of men were calling the Utah state prison warden asking to be one of the shooters. Gilmore, then 35, was a long-time resident of criminal-justice institutions, starting with a reformatory at age 14; in 1975, he killed a gas-station attendant and a motel clerk, apparently without motive. And, when his lawyers appealed, he tried to force them not to. His execution was to be the nation’s first after the Supreme Court lifted a decade-long moratorium on the death penalty.

His argument? To be executed would be to “die with dignity,” he said. And he took advantage of Utah’s law allowing a prisoner to choose his method of execution from either hanging or firing squad to elect for the latter. In its Nov. 22 1976 issue, TIME described how it would go ahead:

If Gilmore is shot, five volunteer marksmen will do the job. They will probably be law-enforcement officials, though none will be from the staff of the prison 20 miles from Salt Lake City where the death sentence will be carried out. Gilmore, hooded and strapped by the neck, arms and legs to a wooden chair, will have a circular piece of black cloth pinned over his heart. Resting high-powered .30-cal. Winchester hunting rifles on a two-by-four railing, the squad will simultaneously fire one round from 20 ft. away. There is no provision for a second volley or a coup de grace, and one rifle will be loaded with a blank so that no one will know for sure that he was responsible for the condemned man’s death.

On the other hand, according to the new lawyer he chose, Gilmore believed that life in prison was cruel and unusual. So much so, that when his execution was stayed, his girlfriend smuggled Seconal sleeping pills to him during a visit, and they both took overdoses. He was rushed to a hospital and ended up back in prison, and progress on his case was delayed while he recovered. She fell into a coma.

In December, following a hunger strike by Gilmore, a hearing board decided that his wish to die by firing squad could move forward. Asked by a judge whether he had anything to say, his only request was not to be hooded during the execution.

Still, even though the date was set, the execution did not happen as planned, as TIME reported on Dec. 13 the same year:

Though Gilmore has persistently disavowed all lawyers who tried to win him a reprieve, the decisive intervention came when Stanford Law Professor Anthony G. Amsterdam moved in the following day, on behalf of Gilmore’s mother. Amsterdam, a leader in the fight against capital punishment for a decade, filed a petition with Supreme Court Justice Byron White, who is responsible for emergency appeals in the Utah area. “The need for a stay of execution is obvious,” said Amsterdam. “Such stays are commonly granted in death cases. Indeed, the only factor that makes this application unusual is [Gilmore’s] assertion that he wished to be executed.”

Among Amsterdam’s reasons for appealing: that there may have been judicial errors in the original trial, that Gilmore may have waived his constitutional rights without fully understanding them, that his defense lawyers were inadequate, and that Utah’s capital punishment law may be unconstitutional. Justice White duly turned the petition over to the full court. The next day the court voted 6 to 3 to stay the execution for one day so that Utah state authorities can provide more information. That demand is very likely to require several further delays.

Meanwhile, Gilmore and his family again got rid of his lawyer, and sold the rights to his story in a deal that resulted in a 1982 movie, The Executioner’s Song, in which Tommy Lee Jones played Gilmore. The entrepreneur who bought the rights was invited to witness Gilmore’s execution.

That event finally took place in January of 1977. “It was an old mahogany office chair with a black vinyl seat and back,” TIME reported on Jan. 31. “There, in an old tannery known as the Slaughterhouse in the southwest corner of the Utah State Prison, sat Gary Mark Gilmore, 36, freshly shaven and wearing a black T shirt, crumpled white trousers and red, white and blue sneakers. His neck, waist, wrists and feet were loosely bound to the chair. Twenty-six feet away hung a sailcloth partition with five slits. Hidden behind the curtain stood five riflemen armed with .30-.30 deer rifles, four loaded with steel-jacketed shells, the fifth with a blank.”

Gilmore was administered his last rites. A target was pinned over his heart; he was hooded, despite his earlier request. All four of the loaded bullets hit their target. Gary Gilmore became the first prisoner to be executed in the U.S. in a decade.

Gilmore’s desire to die, as well as the timing of his execution, made his story irresistible to many Americans, especially at a time where public approval of capital punishment ran high. But those factors that made his case intriguing were the same ones that still limit what can be learned from his case. After all, a precedent that relies on an inmate who advocated for his own execution is one with few applications. “Gilmore would not allow the legal points to be made,” law professor Charles L. Black Jr. explained at the time. “Gilmore cannot give away other people’s rights.”

Read more about Gary Gilmore, here in the TIME Vault: After Gilmore, Who’s Next to Die?

TIME psychology

How Memory Links the Presidency, Ferguson and the Cosby Mess

Do you know me? Relax, you're not alone.
Do you know me? Relax, you're not alone.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

The human brain forgets much more than it remembers, and that has an impact on history, criminal justice and more

Here’s a difficult one, history buffs: Who was Harry Truman? I know, I know, I told you it would be tough, but think hard: Some famous general? Maybe a physicist?

If you guessed U.S. president, good for you! And if you also knew that Truman was the one who came right after Roosevelt (Franklin, that is) and right before Eisenhower, go to the head of the class.

OK, so maybe remembering Truman isn’t such a big deal. But here’s the thing: By 2040, according to a new study just published in Science, only 26% of college students will remember to include his name if they are asked to make a list of all U.S. Presidents, regardless of order.

That finding, which is less a function of historical illiteracy than of the mysterious ways the human brain works, reveals a lot about the perishability of memory. And that, in turn, has implications for contemporary dramas like the Ferguson tragedy, the Bill Cosby mess and the very underpinnings of the criminal justice system.

The Science study, conducted by a pair of psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis, was actually four studies that took place over 40 years—in 1974, 1991, 2009 and 2014. In the first three, the investigators asked groups of then-college students to list all of the presidents in the order in which they served, and also to list as many of them as they could by name regardless of where they fell in history.

In all three groups over all three eras, the results were remarkably similar. As a rule, 100% of respondents knew the president currently serving, and virtually all knew the prior one or two. Performance then fell off with each previous presidency. Roughly 75% of students in 1974 placed FDR in the right spot, for example. Fewer than 20% of Millennials—born much later—could do that. In all groups, the historical trail would go effectively cold one or two presidents before the subjects’ birth—falling into single digits.

There were exceptions. The Founding Father presidents, particularly the first three—George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—scored high in all groups. As did Abraham Lincoln and his two immediate successors, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant. As for the Tylers and Taylors and Fillmores? Forget about them—which most people did. The pattern held again in a single larger survey conducted in 2014, with a mixed-age sample group that included Boomers, Gen X’ers and Millennials, all performing true to their own eras.

Almost none of this had to do with any one President’s historical relevance—apart from the Founding Fathers and Lincoln. James Polk’s enormously consequential, one-term presidency is far less recalled than, say, Jimmy Carter’s much less successful four-year stint. Instead, our memory is personal, a thing of the moment, and deeply fallible—and that means trouble.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Ferguson drama is the mix of wildly different stories eyewitnesses presented to the grand jury, with Michael Brown portrayed as anything from anger-crazed aggressor to supine victim. Some witnesses may have been led by prosecutors, some may have simply been making things up, but at least some were surely doing their best, trying to remember the details of a lethal scene as it unfolded in a few vivid seconds.

If forensic psychology has shown anything, it’s that every single expectation or bias a witness brings to an experience—to say nothing of all of the noise and press and controversy that may follow—can contaminate recall until it’s little more reliable than that of someone who wan’t there at all.

Something less deadly—if no less ugly—applies in the Bill Cosby case. In an otherwise reasonable piece in the Nov. 25 Washington Post, columnist Kathleen Parker cautions against a collective rush to judgment and reminds readers that under the American legal system, Cosby is not a rapist, but an alleged rapist; and his victims, similarly, are as yet only alleged victims. Fair enough; that’s what the criminal justice rules say. But then, there’s this:

“…we have formed our opinions… only on the memories of the women, most of whom say they were drugged at the time. Some of them have conceded that their recollections are foggy—which, of course they would be, after decades and under pharmaceutically induced circumstances, allegedly.”

In other words, if Cosby did drug them, then perhaps we must throw their testimony out of court because, um, Cosby drugged them. Talk about the (alleged) criminal making hay on his crime. And yet, when it comes to the science of memory, that’s an argument that could work before a judge.

Finally, too, there is the unseemly business of Ray Rice. Virtually nobody who knows what he did has forgotten it—which is what happens when you’re a massively strong athlete and you cold-cock a woman. But it was the complete elevator video actually showing the blow, as opposed to the earlier one in which Rice was seen merely dragging the unconscious body of his soon-to-be-wife out into a hotel hallway, that spelled his end—at least until his lifetime NFL ban was overturned on Nov. 28. Knowing what happened is very different from seeing what happened—and once you saw the savagery of Rice’s blow, you could never unsee it.

When it comes to presidents, the fallibility of memory can help. In the years immediately following Richard Nixon’s resignation, it was a lot harder to appreciate his manifest triumphs—the Clean Air Act, the opening to China—than it is now. George W. Bush is enjoying his own small historical rebound, with his AIDS in Africa initiative and his compassionate attempt at immigration reform looking better and better in the rear-view mirror—despite the still-recent debacles of his Presidency.

We do ourselves a disservice if we hold historical grudges against even our most flawed presidents; but we do just as much harm if we allow ourselves to forget why ill-planned land wars in countries like Iraq or cheap break-ins at places like the Watergate are so morally criminal. Forget the sequence of the Presidents if you must, but do remember their deeds.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Hong Kong

Seven Hong Kong Police Officers Arrested for Allegedly Beating Democracy Activist

Attack was captured by local TV news crew

Seven Hong Kong police officers have been arrested on suspicion of beating a political activist who was taking part in the city’s pro-democracy protests.

The police force stated that the officers had been arrested on suspicion of “assault occasioning actual bodily harm.”

The case concerns Civic Party member and social worker Ken Tsang, who was lead away and then assaulted by a group of police officers following clashes between protesters and police in the early hours of Oct. 15.

Caught on video by a local TV news crew, the incident instantly became a cause célèbre and severely aggravated tensions between citizens and the police.

TIME Media

What John Grisham Got Right About Child Pornography

2014 Bookexpo America - Day 3
Taylor Hill—Getty Images Author John Grisham attends the 2014 Bookexpo America at The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on May 31, 2014 in New York City.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a syndicated columnist.

There is clearly something wrong with a justice system in which people who look at images of child rape can be punished more severely than people who rape children

Last week John Grisham, the best-selling author of legal thrillers, triggered a storm of online criticism by arguing in an interview with the Telegraph that criminal penalties for possessing child pornography are unreasonably harsh. Grisham, who has since apologized, spoke rather loosely, overstating the extent to which honest mistakes account for child-porn convictions and the extent to which those convictions expand the prison population.

But he was right on two important points: People who download child pornography are not necessarily child molesters, and whatever harm they cause by looking at forbidden pictures does not justify the penalties they often receive.

Under federal law, receiving child pornography, which could mean downloading a single image, triggers a mandatory minimum sentence of five years—the same as the penalty for distributing it. Merely looking at a picture can qualify someone for the same charge, assuming he does so deliberately and is aware that web browsers automatically make copies of visited sites. In practice, since the Internet nowadays is almost always the source of child pornography, this means that viewing and possession can be treated the same as trafficking.

The maximum penalty for receiving or distributing child porn is 20 years, and federal sentencing guidelines recommend stiff enhancements based on very common factors, such as using a computer, possessing more than 600 images (with each video clip counted as 75 images) and exchanging photos for something of value, including other photos. In a 2009 analysis, federal public defender Troy Stabenow showed that a defendant with no prior criminal record and no history of abusing children would qualify for a sentence of 15 to 20 years based on a small collection of child pornography and one photo swap, while a 50-year-old man who encountered a 13-year-old girl online and lured her into a sexual relationship would get no more than four years.

Nine out of 10 federal child-porn prosecutions involve “nonproduction offenses”: downloading or passing along images of sexual abuse as opposed to perpetrating or recording it. As a result of congressional edicts, the average sentence in such cases rose from 54 months in 2004 to 95 months in 2010, according to a 2012 report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC). The penalties have become so severe, the commission noted, that judges frequently find ways to dodge them, resulting in wildly inconsistent sentences for people guilty of essentially the same conduct. In a 2010 survey, 71% of federal judges said mandatory minimums for receiving child pornography are too long.

State sentences can be even harsher. Dissenting from a 2006 decision in which the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a 200-year sentence for a former high school teacher caught with child pornography, Vice Chief Justice Rebecca Berch noted that the penalties for such offenses were more severe than the penalties for rape, second-degree murder and sexual assault of a child younger than 12.

These draconian sentences seem to be driven largely by the assumption that people who look at child pornography are all undiscovered or would-be child molesters. But that is not true.

The sentencing commission found, based on criminal records and additional information in presentencing reports, that 1 in 3 federal defendants convicted of nonproduction offenses in the previous decade had known histories of “criminal sexually dangerous behavior” (including prior child-pornography offenses). Tracking 610 defendants sentenced in fiscal years 1999 and 2000 for 8.5 years after they were released, the USSC found that 7% were arrested for a new sexual offense.

Even allowing for the fact that many cases of sexual abuse go unreported (as indicated by victim surveys), it seems clear that some consumers of child pornography never abuse children. “There does exist a distinct group of offenders who are Internet-only and do not present a significant risk for hands-on sex offending,” says Karl Hanson, a senior research officer at Public Safety Canada who has co-authored several recidivism studies.

Another argument for sending people who look at child pornography to prison, emphasized by the Supreme Court in its 1990 decision upholding criminal penalties for mere possession, is that consumers create a demand that encourages production. Yet any given consumer’s contribution to that demand is likely insignificant, and this argument carries much less weight now that people typically obtain child pornography online for free.

Defenders of harsh penalties for looking at child pornography also argue that viewing such images imposes extra suffering on victims of sexual abuse, who must live with the knowledge that strangers around the world can see evidence of the horrifying crimes committed against them. But again, any single defendant’s contribution to that suffering is apt to be very small.

Tellingly, people who possess “sexually obscene images of children,” such as “a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting”—production of which need not entail abuse of any actual children—face the same heavy penalties under federal law as people caught with actual child pornography. That provision, like the reaction to Grisham’s comments, suggests these policies are driven by outrage and disgust rather than reason. There is clearly something wrong with a justice system in which people who look at images of child rape can be punished more severely than people who rape children.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a syndicated columnist.

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