TIME Media

What John Grisham Got Right About Child Pornography

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

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.

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 justice

Obama Nominates Vanita Gupta to Be Civil Rights Chief

Vanita Gupta.
Vanita Gupta. AP

Gupta has been praised for her ability to bring opposing parties together in matters of criminal justice and civil rights.

President Obama has tapped the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Vanita Gupta, to head the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Wednesday. In a statement, Holder praised Gupta’s “trailblazing work” as a civil rights lawyer, and said she “has spent her entire career working to ensure that our nation lives up to its promise of equal justice for all.”

Strongly supported by the left, Gupta has also won unexpected praise from conservatives normally critical of the Obama administration and Holder’s leadership of the Justice Department. Conservatives including Grover Norquist and former president of the National Rifle Association David Keene are among her supporters.

“We come from a different side of spectrum than ACLU,” says Marc Levin, policy director for the conservative criminal justice reform organization Right on Crime which has an informal relationship with the ACLU. “But, I’ve found her interested in identifying areas where we can work together.”

Gupta started her career at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), where she won a challenge to reverse the convictions of a group of black men who were wrongfully convicted of selling drugs in Texas. In 2003, Gov. Rick Perry pardoned the defendants. At the ACLU she led a lawsuit against a Texas immigration detention facility that led to widespread detention policy reform.

As outrage has erupted in Ferguson, Mo. over the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer, Gupta and the ACLU have been among the loudest voices calling for accountability and transparency from the police department. Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF, said Wednesday that Gupta has “expertise in bringing law enforcement and communities of color to the same table, in pursuit of common goals of fairness and accountability.

Former U.S. Pardon Attorney Margaret Love says Gupta’s appointment is a “happy confirmation of the Obama Administration’s appreciation of the relationship between civil rights and the criminal justice system.”

Gupta may prove a less divisive choice than Obama’s prior nominee for the civil rights post, Debo Adegbile. His nomination was blocked in Congress because he once represented death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer. The Obama administration stood by their nomination of Adegbile, but he later withdrew and returned to private practice.

Gupta has her own legal history, however. She made her name in part by fighting to reform the nation’s drug laws, including embracing broad decriminalization of some drugs. In an opinion piece for the New York Times last September, she called for the elimination of the mandatory minimum sentences that have left many first-time offenders locked up for life. She supports of decriminalizing marijuana, the criminalization of which she has said has contributed to our nation’s overcrowded prison system.

“Those who seek a fairer criminal justice system, unclouded by racial bias, must at a minimum demand that the government eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, which tie judges’ hands; rescind three-strikes laws, which often make no distinction between, say, armed assault and auto theft; amend ‘truth in sentencing’ statutes, which prohibit early release for good behavior; and recalibrate drug policies, starting with decriminalization of marijuana possession and investment in substance-abuse prevention and treatment,” Gupta wrote in the New York Times.

TIME

How to Predict Future Criminals

An interactive demonstration of how the justice system uses data to determine the length of prison sentences

When deciding how long to send someone to jail, many states currently use statistical models to determine whether offenders risk committing a future crime if they are let out on probation or parole. In the past several years, researchers have been able to demonstrate that factors like drug and alcohol problems, family life and education can help them predict the likelihood of recidivism.

In a speech before the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder warned that this increasingly popular use of data-based methods in determining prison sentences “may run the risk of imposing drastically different punishments for the same crimes.” As Holder told TIME this week, he fears that the statistical methods that punish for factors like education will disproportionately affect minority and poor offenders.

Below, you’ll find a demonstration of the kind of kind calculator many states use to predict odds of recidivism. Change the responses in the following interactive to see how the odds of re-arrest change with the offender’s circumstances. In many states, these odds are being used to determine sentencing lengths.

 

The actual use of this “post conviction risk assessment” varies widely. This method, developed by criminal justice researcher Christopher T. Lowenkamp and colleagues, is an area of ongoing study. Using standard statistical models, the researchers were able to study a large population of offenders to determine which factors can predict a person’s likelihood of future offense and which cannot. Notably, a person’s race–left in this interactive for demonstration purposes–has almost no predictive power over future behavior when all other factors are held constant. In other words, a white offender and black offender with the same answers to the above questions are almost equally likely to commit a future crime.

TIME justice

Reduced Drug Sentences Could Affect 46,000 Prisoners

Those already behind bars could have their sentences reduced by more than two years

The U.S. Sentencing Commission on Friday unanimously voted to retroactively reduce prison sentences for drug offenders who are currently serving their terms. The move follows a decision in April to reduce future sentences by about two years, but will soon apply to those already behind bars so long as Congress does not overrule the vote.

Around 46,000 inmates sentenced before Nov. 1,2014 and locked up for nonviolent drug offenses could be eligible for reduced sentences, with releases beginning Nov. 1, 2015. The commission estimates that under the new rules the average prisoner could have his or her sentenced reduced by about 25 months, though they’d likely still serve about 108 months, or nine years.

The move “reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety,” Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission in a statement.

The new guidelines have been widely praised by advocacy groups, and the Commission says that the majority of the 60,000 letters it received on the matter during the public comment period were positive.

The Department of Justice had formally supported a more limited version of the guidelines, which would only apply if offenders were not guilty of violent crimes, did not have significant criminal histories and if their cases did not involve the use of weapons back in June. However, on Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement that he looks forward to working with the commission on implementing the new guidelines. “This is a milestone in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement resources and to ease the burden on our overcrowded prison system,” Holder said.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a D.C.-based organization that advocates for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences praised the Commission’s decision on Friday, exclaiming triumphantly, “We did it!”

TIME justice

From Big House to White House: Ex-Convicts To Be Honored By Obama Administration

Fortune HIV AIDS
In this May 29, 2014 photo, Stan Richards, right, an executive with the Fortune Society, listens as Melissa Carter, left, speaks during an interview in New York. Bebeto Matthews—AP

The White House will honor 14 champions for change on prisoner reentry Monday

Stanley Richards is living proof that giving ex-offenders a second chance can pay off.

Richards grew up amid the drug and gang epidemic that terrorized black communities in early 1980s New York, and spent more time on the streets than in school. After bouncing in and out of jail as a teen, he eventually caught a charge that stuck and was sentenced to nine years in prison for robbery. After serving his time, and collecting a GED an associates degree while behind bars, he wanted to turn his life around. “I began to believe life could be different for me,” Richards says. “Just maybe, through education, things could get better.”

Upon his release, he sought employment at several community organizations but kept getting doors slammed in his face due to his lack of experience. Eventually, the Fortune Society, a Bronx-based non-profit that supports successful reentry, was the exception; it hired Richards as a counselor. And after 23 years of employment and several promotions, Richards will be one of 14 honored by the White House on Monday as a Champion of Change for prisoner reentry.

Richards will be joined at the White House by state lawmakers, business leaders and others, who are gathering to discuss how to reduce recidivism by offering more opportunities for the ex-offender population.

The Obama Administration has been rolling out prison reform policies over the past year in an effort to cut America’s prison budget and save the toughest penalties for the worst criminals. The Administration is also working to provide retroactive relief to some criminals impacted by harsh federal drug laws that have since been reformed. Attorney General Eric Holder announced in April that some prisoners could be eligible for a shortened sentence as a result; the Department of Justice is expecting thousands of applications for clemency this year.

The statistics, as they now stand, are not encouraging. Nearly 68% of released prisoners return to prison within three years. After five years, 76.6% of prisoners are back behind bars, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

There are solutions, however, and states have been leading the way in implementing them. In fact, the Council of State Governments’s “State Pathways to Prosperity” initiative, which is working to smarten states’ approach to criminal justice across all branches of government, was a driving inspiration behind Monday’s White House panel.

The states that are making progress have focused on finding employment and stable housing for ex-convicts when they are released. In Pennsylvania, an overhaul of halfway houses and other corrections facilities has already led to a 24% reduction in recidivism among those who pass through facilities with state contracts. “We’re trying to transform the system by looking at the needs of the community and the needs of offenders,” says John Wetzel, the Secretary of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, who will be a part of a White House panel Monday to discuss best practices.

Rhode Island Department of Corrections is ramping up its partnership with the state’s Department of Labor to employ offenders upon their release. The director of corrections in Rhode Island, A.T. Wall, has been working in corrections for 38 years, and calls employment and housing the “twin pillars of effective reintegration.” “I have an opportunity to spend a lot of time in our institutions, talking to inmates shortly before release,” Wall says. “When I ask them ‘what do you need,’ the overwhelming majority say ‘I need a job.’”

While the need for ex-offender employment and housing opportunities is obvious to corrections officers, and increasingly lawmakers, private employers and landlords still have to buy in to the idea for it work. And many have been reluctant. “Some employers say it would be wreck less to hire ex-offenders, but wouldn’t it be just as wreck less to say no to employing someone just because they were in state prison?” Wetzel says. “One thing we’ve recognized is that when you have a good outcome in corrections and you can place someone in a job–that’s grassroots crime reduction.”

The Johns Hopkins Hospital system, which will be recognized as a Champion of Change Monday, has been leading the way in employing those with criminal histories. Of the 5,000 people they hired last year, 5% had criminal records. The key, says Pamela Paulk, senior Vice President of Human Resources at Johns Hopkins, is the screening and thoughtful placement of all hires. Recruiters work with the security team, head up by a former Secret Service agent, to make sure potential hires would be a good match for a certain job, depending on what crime they committed.

“We’re not going to put someone with a drug history in the pharmacy department,” Paulk says. The hospitals hiring guidelines also prohibit employing people who have committed violent crimes; those with sex-related histories do not work near patients.

Paulk says she hopes Monday’s event will increase dialogue among hiring managers. “We need more employers willing to expand hiring opportunities,” she says. “Jobs are what ‘s going to help with reducing the recidivism rate.”

For, Richards, who plans to bring his wife, youngest son, and nine-year-old grandson on Monday, it’s a bit more personal. “I’m from the big house to the White House,” Richards says. “That’s pretty powerful.”

TIME White House

In Second Term, Obama Uses Pot Past to Push Reforms, Reach Youth

President Barack Obama speaks during an event on the bloging site Tumblr, in the State Dining Room on June 10, 2014 in Washington, DC.
President Barack Obama speaks during a Tumblr Q&A in the State Dining Room on June 10, 2014 in Washington, DC. Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images

Part 'cool factor' and part cautionary tale, Obama talks about his drug-using past.

During a Tumblr chat at the White House this week, President Barack Obama winked at the crowd of youngsters as he discussed his high school years. “I actually loved math and science until I got into high school,” Obama said. “And then I misspent those years.” He paused and smiled while the crowd, naturally, erupted with laughter.

The President’s allusion was clear: he spent his high school years in Hawaii smoking joints with his friends. Well into his second term with his poll numbers declining and his ability to push legislation through Congress diminished, Obama is becoming more vocal about his past drug use as both a cautionary tale and to connect with young audiences.

His frankness coincides with evolving national attitudes toward drugs. Since his re-election, Colorado and Washington State have legalized marijuana for recreational use, while more states have moved to decriminalize possession of cannabis. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has been relegated to a minor role. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is deep into a top down revision of the what Attorney General Eric Holder has called “draconian” mandatory minimum sentences for drugs.

Long before Obama became a Presidential candidate, he used his own drug use was central storyline in his 1995 memoir Dreams from my Father. “Nobody asked you whether your father was a fat-cat executive who cheated on his wife or some laid-off joe who slapped you around whenever he bothered to come home,” Obama wrote of his drug-filled years. “You might just be bored, or alone. Everybody was welcome into the club of disaffection. And if the high didn’t solve whatever it was that was getting you down, it could at least help you laugh at the world’s ongoing folly and see through all the hypocrisy and bullshit and cheap moralism.”

As he sought higher office, that part of the Obama narrative faded from view. In the heat of the 2008 primary, Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire co-chair, Billy Shaheen, resigned his position after suggesting that Republicans would use Obama’s drug history against him, even suggesting Obama once sold drugs, a charge that prompted a personal in-person apology from Clinton to Obama.

But Obama’s re-election opened the floodgates for presidential drug talk. “I remember when BuzzFeed was something I did in college around 2 a.m.,” he cracked at the White House Correspondents Dinner last year. This year he called Colorado’s legalization effort “an interesting social experiment.”

White House aides caution that the move is not a strategic shift, but concede that his openness on the subject is a reflection of his newfound freedom having put his final campaign behind him. Yet the timing of it all hasn’t gone unnoticed. Over the past year, the Obama Administration has been rolling out piecemeal reforms to sentencing laws aimed at reducing the number of low-level prisoners facing lengthy sentences for drug crimes.

Though Congress stalled on legislation that would cap the mandatory sentences blamed for filling the nation’s federal prisons, the Obama Administration has urged judges to avoid mandatory minimums. Holder has singled out states for disenfranchising former prisoners, calling for an all out repeal of such laws in February. After Obama commuted the sentences of eight federal prisoners facing life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses in December, the administration wanted more, launching a massive call for applications for commutations, and removing the head of the U.S. Pardon office in the process.

Last week, Attorney General Holder formally backed a U.S. Sentencing Commission proposal that could reduce the prison sentences of 20,000 people currently behind bars for nonviolent drug offense. The measure could reduce sentences by an average of 23 months. Obama met with the commission on Wednesday to be briefed on the proposal. Combined with the My Brother’s Keeper initiative to provide paths to opportunity for young minority men, it’s as if President Obama had a heart-to-heart with young Barry O—the young man he wrote about heading toward becoming a “Junkie. Pothead.”

He has also been sharing his story with young people. “When it was my turn, I explained to them that when I was their age I was a lot like them,” he retold in February, about a meeting the previous year with a group of Chicago teenagers. “I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.”

In a wide-ranging interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick late last year, Obama referenced his own past to call for a new approach, “We should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing,” he said.

The drug reforms could well become the defining domestic policy achievements of his second term, but in the short term, the nods to his “misspent” past keep him relevant among his most loyal supporters: youth. Speaking at a high school graduation last week in Massachusetts he admitted that he did not recall his own graduation speaker, drawing a laugh from the assembled students. “I have no idea who it was,” he said. “I’m sure I was thinking about the party after graduation. I don’t remember the party either.”

TIME justice

Holder Backs Plan to Reduce Drug Sentences for Non-Violent Offenders

Attorney General Eric Holder formally supports new sentencing guidelines that could mean a swifter exit for low-level offenders currently serving time

The U.S. Department of Justice formally backed on Tuesday a proposal that would make some drug offenders currently behind bars eligible for a reduced sentence. Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday that prisoners with a non-violent criminal history should be deemed eligible for retroactive relief.

“Not everyone in prison for a drug-related offense would be eligible,” Holder said Tuesday. “Nor would everyone who is eligible be guaranteed a reduced sentence. But this proposal strikes the best balance between protecting public safety and addressing the overcrowding of our prison system that has been exacerbated by unnecessarily long sentences.”

The U.S. Sentencing Commission approved in April a proposal to reduce in sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders. Under that proposal, the average sentence for a low-level drug crime would be reduced by 23 months. The Department of Justice is proposing these guidelines be applied to those behind bars who did not receive a mandatory minimum sentence for a firearms offense or a longer sentence for using or threatening to use violence.

The Commission will decide in the coming weeks whether to apply the change to those currently serving time.

The Justice Department’s move aligns with the Obama Administration’s ongoing Smart on Crime initiative, which seeks to better match crimes and punishments. It also comes after legislation that would reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine passed a Senate committee this year, though the legislation has yet to be brought up for a full Senate vote.

TIME politics

I Spent More Than Six Years as an Innocent Woman on Death Row

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Frank van den Bergh—Getty Images

I was 18 when I was convicted of murdering my baby and sentenced to death, and 25 when I was finally found innocent.

The new season of Orange is the New Black will be available on Netflix starting next weekend. I won’t be watching it. I lived it.

I was 17 and living in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1989. One night, I went to check on my beautiful 9-month-old son, Walter. He wasn’t breathing. I scooped him up and frantically rushed to the neighbor next door, who could not help me. I ran downstairs where another girl took my baby, started CPR, and advised me what to do. I performed CPR all the way to the hospital. The CPR left bruises on his chest. At the hospital, the doctors said they had done all they could.

The next morning, I went down to the police station as I had been asked to do. When I got there, a detective yelled at me, “You know you killed your baby. You stepped on him with your feet and smashed him on the floor. You killed him.”

I was alone with no lawyer or parent with me. I told him I tried to save my baby. He wrote down what I said and threw it in the garbage. He yelled at me for three hours. No matter what I said, he screamed over and over that I had killed my baby. I was terrified. I was put in jail and not allowed to attend Walter’s funeral.

When I was 18, I was convicted of murdering my baby and sentenced to death. As a death row prisoner, I was alone in my cell for 23 hours a day. It was a good thing: if the other women could have gotten near me, they would have killed me because they thought I deserved to die. In prison, you have to constantly watch your back.

Around the time my other son Danny was five years old, he asked me on the phone, “Are they going to kill you with a needle?” It is a question no child should ever have to ask his mother or father.

My own mother fought to prove my innocence. I was lucky: attorneys Rob McDuff and Clive Stafford Smith took my case pro bono. They got me a new trial and called witnesses who said I had been trying to resuscitate Walter with CPR. That’s where the bruises came from. My new attorneys also showed that my son died from a hereditary kidney condition. There was no murder at all.

I was 25 years old when I was finally found innocent. I am the only woman ever exonerated and freed from death row in the United States.

I wish I could say that it is rare for innocent people to be convicted and sentenced to death. But it’s not. Since 1973, 144 people have been exonerated and freed from death row in the U.S. I provide support to many of these men through my job at Witness to Innocence, a nonprofit organization that helps people who have been exonerated from death row and their loved ones.

A study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that more than 4% — one in every 25 — of the death sentences in the U.S. are imposed on people who are innocent. This should be a cause for outrage. If one in 25 bank transactions were inaccurate, no one would stand for it.

Recently, a group of former governors, judges and other important people got together and issued 39 recommendations to make the death penalty more fair and accurate. Even if every reform was adopted, innocent people would still get convicted and sent to death row. As long as human beings are in charge, they will make mistakes. If we can’t get the death penalty right every time, we shouldn’t do it at all.

You can change the laws, but you can’t change some things about human nature. There will always be people who want to advance their careers by putting people to death. Some of those people will be innocent, like me, and most of them will be poor, isolated and African American or Latino.

I was a teenager who, less than 24 hours before, had lost my precious baby boy. Ambitious men questioned, demoralized and intimidated me. In that state of mind, I signed the lies they wrote on a piece of paper. I signed my name in tiny letters in the margin to show some form of resistance to the power they had over me. People who say they would never sign a false confession have never been in my shoes.

When I first went to prison, I hated the people who railroaded me onto death row. Then I realized that I could be bitter and angry, but the only person it would hurt was me. I made a decision to fill my heart with love, try to be happy every day, and help other people. You can choose to be positive or you can choose to be negative. And that’s the choice that makes all the difference in the world.

Sabrina Butler is the Assistant Director of Membership and Training at Witness to Innocence. She still lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with her husband of 19 years and three children.

TIME justice

Tennessee Says It Will Bring Back the Electric Chair

Tennessee said it would bring back the electric chair if it couldn't get its hands on drugs to perform legal executions, amid growing shortages of the drugs used in lethal injections, questions about their humaneness and a recent botched execution

Tennessee said Thursday that it would bring back the electric chair if it couldn’t get its hands on drugs to perform legal executions.

Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill Thursday evening, the Associated Press reports, amid growing shortages of the drugs used in lethal injections, questions about their humaneness and a recent botched execution. Though any planned electrocutions would likely spark legal challenges, one expert said the law made Tennessee the first state to bring back the chair without giving the condemned an option of how to die.

“There are states that allow inmates to choose, but it is a very different matter for a state to impose a method like electrocution,” Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the AP. “No other state has gone so far.”

State lawmakers passed the bill by wide margins in April. Haslam didn’t comment publicly Thursday night and his office did not immediately answer requests for comment.

In recent months, serious questions have been raised about lethal injections. Manufacturers have held back supplying states with the combination of drugs used amid criticism that lethal injections aren’t humane enough. And shortly thereafter, a botched execution in which the inmate took more than half an hour to die of a heart attack drew widespread national attention, and prompted President Barack Obama to launch a Justice Department review of how executions are conducted across the country. Oklahoma’s governor also suspended executions in the state pending a review.

[AP]

TIME justice

Conservatives Tout Criminal Justice Reform Efforts in States

Newt Gingrich said Tuesday that the federal government could stand to learn a thing or two about criminal justice reform from the states

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Wednesday that conservative lawmakers are at the forefront of criminal justice reform across the country, touting both piecemeal and comprehensive efforts already in place in a handful of red states.

“Frankly we’re prepared to learn and to evolve much more than the left is,” Gingrich said during a conference hosted by Right on Crime, a conservative criminal justice reform organization. “We’re not trapped by institutions that are protecting the past.”

The conference gave conservative lawmakers and thought leaders a chance to tout their efforts on an issue whose politics used to demand tough-on-crime rhetoric and action in the days of the 1980s urban crack epidemic. Falling crime rates and concerns about the cost of prison overcrowding has changed the calculus for both parties.

In Mississippi, for example, a prison reform law that is expected to save about $266 million and cut the state prison population over the next decade was signed into law in late March. In 2012, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a sweeping reform law in an effort to reduce the state’s recidivism level. Two years later, the state saw its prison population shift to have higher proportions of violent criminals than non-violent.

While states have been moving forward on reform, the federal government has only recently gained momentum. The Senate’s bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, which takes direct aim at mandatory minimum sentences, is considered good policy by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle but has yet to reach the Senate floor. Gingrich said that bill is only a step in the right direction.

“The federal legislatures would do very well to sit down with Mississippi, Georgia, Texas and learn what the states are already doing that is very exciting,” he said.

Even as the politics have changed, some lawmakers still fear being see as soft on crime. When the Smarter Sentencing Act—which would reduce federal mandatory minimums for some non-violent drug crimes—passed through committee, an amendment was attached adding more mandatory minimums for some sexual and domestic abuse crimes.

“I think we have an opportunity here to build on the successes in states like Texas, in states like South Dakota, and Mississippi, most recently, because we have a roadmap,” Mississippi Lt. Gov. J. Tate Reeves told TIME. “When the country was founded it was really believed that states where going to be the spaces where ideas really bubble up from, this is an instance that I believe that to be true.”

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