TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 17

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Is the Taliban’s fracturing a sign of its demise or a possible turn to a more lethal strategy?

By Sundarsan Raghavan in the Washington Post

2. To fight cybercrime, President Obama needs Silicon Valley.

By Katie Benner in Bloomberg View

3. The FDA needs updated systems to review drugs — made from our own cells — that target cancer and more.

By Peter W. Huber in City Journal

4. Our high incarceration rate no longer reduces crime.

By Lauren-Brooke Eisen in USA Today

5. Better than an action movie: Catch a college lecture on your next commercial flight.

By Kim Clark in Money

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

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

Pennsylvania Stops Using the Death Penalty

Gov. Tom Wolf Caln speaks during a news conference at Elementary School on Feb. 11, 2015, in Thorndale, Pa.
Matt Rourke—AP Gov. Tom Wolf Caln speaks during a news conference at Elementary School on Feb. 11, 2015, in Thorndale, Pa.

The governor will grant temporary reprieves until the state reaches a final decision

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday that the state has effectively put a moratorium on the death penalty.

While Wolf awaits a report from a task force on the state’s use of capital punishment, he will grant temporary reprieves for all death row inmates whose executions are scheduled. That begins with Terrance Williams, who was slated to be executed on March 4.

Wolf noted said the moratorium “is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes.” But he also said capital punishment is expensive, possibly ineffective and sometimes inaccurate—six Pennsylvania men have been exonerated from death row.

TIME Race

Minorities Face Significant Barriers to Home Ownership in the U.S., Report Says

'It's clear that the housing playing field remains strikingly unequal in this country'

Minorities continue to face significant barriers to home ownership in the U.S., according to a new report.

The report, released by online real estate database Zillow, shows a significant disparity in home ownership, property values and home loan approval rates between white and minority communities.

Read More: The Long, Tangled Roots of the Michael Brown Shooting

More than 25% of loan applications by black applicants in the U.S. are denied, compared with 10% of their white counterparts, the report found. Additionally, nearly three in four white Americans own their homes, compared to less than half of black and Hispanic Americans.

The value of homes owned by minorities also tended to be less stable. While prices in white neighborhoods have largely recovered from the economic downturn of 2008, home prices in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods remain well below peak levels.

“It’s clear that the housing playing field remains strikingly unequal in this country,” Zillow Chief Economist Stan Humphries said in a statement.

TIME justice

5 Convicted in Baltimore Jailhouse Gang Case

An inmate transport van departs from the Baltimore City Detention Center in Baltimore on June 6, 2013.
Patrick Semansky—AP An inmate transport van departs from the Baltimore City Detention Center in Baltimore on June 6, 2013.

They face a maximum of 20 years in federal prison

Two former corrections officers and two inmates are among five people who were convicted Thursday for their roles in a Baltimore jailhouse crime ring. A former contract employee for the Maryland Department for Public Safety and Corrections Services was also convicted of crimes ranging from money laundering to drug conspiracy and racketeering. Three people were acquitted.

Prosecutors say inmates Joseph Young and Russell Carrington doubled as Black Guerilla Family gang leaders and drug pushers inside the Baltimore City Detention Center, recruiting corrections officers and other gang members to do their bidding. Carrington also allegedly had a sexual relationship with a corrections officer, who according to the Department of Justice, helped finance his crimes.

Ashley Newton and Travis Paylor were accused of being among the officers who smuggled marijuana, pills and tobacco to inmates in exchange for money. Newton, according to the DOJ, also had sexual relationships with two jailhouse gang members. Michelle McNair, was a contract employee in the jail’s kitchen where she was accused of smuggling weed and pills.

For their involvement in the drug conspiracy alone, the five face a maximum of 20 years in federal prison. A sentencing date has not yet been set.

The convictions came as a result of a massive 2013 indictment that charged a total of 44 people with crimes related to the jailhouse scheme, according to CBS Baltimore. The eight on trial were the few who did not plead guilty in the case. The alleged ringleader of the gang conspiracy, Tavon White, pleaded guilty.

TIME Crime

Police Say They Didn’t Pull Guns Over Teen Snowball Fight

'There was no snowball fight'

Police in suburban New York say a video that claims to show a group of teenagers harassed at gunpoint for engaging in a snowball fight is a work of “clever mischief” after it went viral over the weekend.

“There was no snowball fight,” New Rochelle Deputy Police Commissioner Anthony Murphy told the New York Daily News. Police were responding to a 911 call that involved someone pulling a gun, he said.

The 30-second video, which contains profanity but can be found here, shows two young men kneeling with their hands up as an officer yells at them. A report from local news outlet Talk of the Sound says the young men are black, though it’s difficult to see in the blurry video. Police treatment of young black men has been the focus of protests across the country in recent months after grand juries in New York and Ferguson, Mo., declined to indict police officers in two deaths.

“This group of guys was having a snowball fight and now a cop has a gun on them,” a voice says in the video.

The video caused a stir in the New York suburb and across the Internet. Talk of the Sound generated so much web traffic that the site’s host thought it was “under attack.” New Rochelle Councilman Jared Rice said that circumstances surrounding the incident were unclear, and tweeted that “many questions that still need answers.”

[New York Daily News]

TIME

NYC Probe Finds Firm Knowingly Participated in Video About Killing Police Officers

Investigation focuses on The Bronx Defenders

A public defense firm that receives significant funding from New York City knowingly participated in a music video that advocated for the killing of police officers, an investigation by the city’s Department of Investigation has found.

Attorneys at The Bronx Defenders not only appeared in the video but allowed it to be filmed at their headquarters, according to a department statement on the findings. Rap lyrics in the “Hands Up” video include “For Mike Brown and Sean Bell a cop got to get killed” and “time to start killing these coppers.” In one scene, two men point guns at the head of a man dressed as an officer.

“Advocating the killing of police officers is unacceptable and offensive,” DOI Commissioner Mark G. Peters said in the statement. “These attorneys have abysmally failed to meet their obligations to their clients, to the courts and to the city as a whole.”

The video was released at a tense time for the city, which faced tough police-community relations following the chokehold-related death of Staten Island man Eric Garner and lack of indictment for the officer involved in that case. The video, however, was released prior to the deadly ambush of two officers in Brooklyn.

Investigators also found that the executive director of the firm misled city officials about the organization’s involvement. The New York Daily News reports Robin Steinberg, the organization’s director, released a statement saying the rappers “released a version of ‘Hands Up’ we did not authorize or endorse,” shortly after the video went public.

The Department of Investigations began looking into the Bronx Defenders involvement on Dec. 12. City officials are mulling a next action.

TIME justice

Koch Brother Teams Up With Liberals on Criminal Justice Reform

Charles Koch
Bo Rader—Wichita Eagle/MCT via Getty Images Charles Koch, head of Koch Industries, on Feb 27, 2007.

The push for prison reform gets momentum from a conservative power player

Just days after word emerged that the billionaire Koch brothers will spend nearly a billion dollars to elect conservatives in the 2016 elections, Charles Koch sent a top adviser to Washington to urge Republicans to work with Democrats on a key issue: criminal-justice reform.

Justice reform is not a cause for which the Kochs are normally in the news. The billionaire brothers are known for their lavish giving to conservative candidates and causes, for which they are celebrated on the right and reviled by the left. But for more than a decade, the Kochs have quietly pumped several million dollars into efforts to fix a criminal-justice system that many on both sides of the aisle believe is broken.

Last month, Charles Koch co-authored an op-ed for Politico decrying the “overcriminalization of America.” Now the Kochs are teaming up with some unlikely allies on the left in hopes of rectifying the problem. And their presence in the emerging bipartisan coalition for justice reform underscores the issue’s rare—perhaps unique—status as a cause that has united liberals and conservatives in an era of bitter partisanship.

“There’s just so much movement here,” Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries, tells TIME. “It’s sweeping in a lot of unusual, non-traditional allies, and I think it’s a good thing.”

Holden was standing on Wednesday under the glittering chandeliers and Corinthian columns of a caucus room in the Russell Senate building, where he had just wrapped up a prison-reform discussion organized by The Constitution Project. The event offered the rare tableau where a bipartisan group of activists gathered in Washington to agree on policy, rather than fling accusations.

The motley panel included liberal and conservative senators and congressmen, activists and commentators, who warmly complimented one another’s leadership. Holden was seated next to Van Jones, a former Obama environmental adviser who once accused the Kochs of running a “plantation.” The oddball pair seemed bemused at the strange alliance. “Dogs and cats sleeping together,” Holden joked.

It’s easy to see why the issue attracts both sides. The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration of any industrialized country in the world (second overall, behind the tiny Seychelles). It has 2.2 million total inmates—more than any other nation, and an increase of 500% over the past three decades. There are some 4,500 federal criminal laws on the books. More than half of the federal prison population consists of nonviolent drug offenders.

“Conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans alike, have come to the conclusion that the system that has developed over the course of the last few decades in this country isn’t working,” said David Keene, a longtime conservative activist. “We’ve come to the conclusion that we have to work together.”

Activists on the left have long been vocal opponents of the justice system’s failings, which disproportionately affect minority groups and the poor. But their right-leaning counterparts have also fought hard to combat the pipeline to prison, for reasons ranging from the big-government bloat to the waste of taxpayer dollars to the dehumanizing conditions that strip individual liberties.

“Most people assume that conservatives are motivated to reform by economics,” says Pat Nolan, the director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservation Union Foundation. “My experience is not that. It’s the moral issues…There’s no form of government domination greater than imprisonment.”

Holden has been interested in criminal justice since his days working as a jail guard in his hometown of Worcester, Mass. He was in high school and college at the time, and some of the inmates were former classmates. He witnessed the ways the system can suck people in. “These were the kids who were always in trouble,” Holden recalls. “I’ve always kind of been around these issues.”

The Kochs’ commitment in criminal-justice reform dates to the mid-1990s, when the company became embroiled in a court case related to alleged environmental crimes at a a refinery in Corpus Christi, Tex. In 2001, a subsidiary of the company pleaded guilty to concealing environmental violations at the refinery; a multitude of other charges were dropped, but the company paid a $20 million fine to settle the matter. The owners believed they had been victimized by overzealous prosecutors and unclear statutes. “Our view was if we, a large company with many resources, were treated this way, what’s happening to the average American?” Holden says.

The Kochs began donating money to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) to combat prosecutorial abuses. “Once we got involved,” says Holden, “we couldn’t stop.” Since 2004, the Kochs have made annual donations (in the “significant six figures,” according to Holden) to the NACDL. The money is designed to address a broad range of justice issues, from mandatory minimums for drug crimes to the right to competent representation and sentencing disparities for the disadvantaged.

Last month, Holden and Koch laid out a five-point reform plan to change the criminal justice system. It includes ensuring that indigent defendants receive adequate legal counsel, reducing criminal liabilities for inadvertent violations, and restoring rights to youthful and non-violent offenders to help them re-enter the job market after their release. Such beliefs have led the Kochs to team up with liberal organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union to combat issues like harsh sentencing and Sixth Amendment rights. “It’s very, very rare where we have a moment that the stars have aligned in this way,” said Jones.

Progress looks possible at the federal level. Several justice-reform bills have been introduced in Congress. They’re often the product of strange partnerships: one Senate effort, which would adjust mandatory sentencing guidelines, was sponsored by Dick Durbin of Illinois, a leading liberal, and Utah Senator Mike Lee, a Tea Party darling. Another sweeping Senate bill, introduced by Kentucky Republican Rand Paul and New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker, would seal and expunge juvenile records for nonviolent offenders and restrict the use of solitary confinement. But so far the legislation has languished.

The Kochs have the power to change that. Their clout on the right could help sway more conservatives to support criminal justice efforts. Most of the likely 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls have supported some kind of criminal-justice reforms. Given the Kochs’ commitment to the issue, candidates might be wise to make issues like curbing the prison population a larger campaign theme.

Holden says the Kochs won’t make criminal justice a political litmus test, in the way that they have focused attention on issues like health-care reform or environmental regulations. At the same time, “to the extent that there are candidates that are working on these issues we care about,” Holden says, “we’re probably going to want to support candidates who are in favor of helping people, helping the disadvantaged with their policies.”

Compared to their spending on elections, the money the Kochs are funneling toward justice reform is modest. Their network plans to fork out nearly $900 million in advance of the 2016 election, according to reports—nearly as much as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney corralled in 2016 to support their campaigns. And Holden says there are no plans at the moment to increase the financial support for justice reform or form a new nonprofit devoted to the issue, although he wouldn’t rule it out. “It depends on what the opportunities are. If we see coalitions building and real change coming, and it’s consistent with our values and beliefs,” Holden says, “we’ll be all over it. We don’t necessarily start out saying we’re going to spend this much this year.”

And the momentum is building. “It’s not a left-right issue,” Holden says. “It’s all about what’s right for the country. There’s so much that everyone fights about, and there’s a commonality here.”

TIME Congress

Former CBS Reporter Takes Case Against Obama to Congress

Loretta Lynch Howard Sorority Sisters
Alma S. Adams (@RepAdams) via Twitter Congresswoman Alma S. Adams posted this photo on Jan. 28, 2014. "Supporting Greensboro native, Loretta Lynch, in her confirmation hearing for U.S. Attorney General. #NC12"

Sharyl Attkisson gets a large perch to project her lawsuit's claims

Former CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson, a high-profile plaintiff suing the Justice Department for alleged computer hacking, received a national audience on Thursday to project her claims before Congressmen who will chose her defendant’s successor.

As a witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch, Attkisson broadly knocked the Obama Administration for punishing those who cross it.

“The message has already been received: if you cross the Administration with perfectly accurate reporting that they don’t like: you will be attacked and punished,” she said in her opening remarks. “You and your sources may be subjected to the kind of surveillance devised for enemies of the state.”

But Attkisson also repeated claims that she makes in her case: that forensic investigation confirm “intrusive, long-term remote surveillance” of her work. “That included keystroke monitoring, password capture, use of Skype to listen into audio and exfiltrate files, and more,” she said.

The Justice Department has repeatedly denied any effort to hack Attkisson. “To our knowledge, the Justice Department has never compromised Ms. Attkisson’s computers, or otherwise sought any information from or concerning any telephone, computer or other media device she may own or use,” the Department said in a statement in 2013.

Attkisson is seeking $35 million in damages, alleging that the Administration illegally monitored her work as she reported on the Benghazi attacks, Fast and Furious and Obamacare, according to reports.

The Washington Post reports that of the four witnesses called by Republicans, three are involved in lawsuits against the Administration.

As the hearing commenced, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy objected to using the Lynch confirmation process as a forum for hearing unrelated grievances. “Barack Obama is not the nominee,” said Leahy. “That may come as a surprise to some who heard some of the questions [yesterday.] Eric Holder is not the nominee. Loretta Lynch, the daughter of Lorine and the Rev. Lorenzo Lynch, a U.S. Attorney twice unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate, one who has been applauded for her law enforcement work—that’s who is being called upon to consider.”

Lynch has gained the support of some senior Republicans, including Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who called the nominee “exceptionally well qualified and a good person to boot” during the hearing.

 

TIME Australia

Australia Court Rules the Month-Long Detention of Migrants at Sea Was Legal

Protesters hold placards at the 'Stand up for Refugees' rally held in central Sydney
David Gray—Reuters Protesters hold placards at the 'Stand up for Refugees' rally held in central Sydney Oct. 11, 2014

The case brought attention to Australia's controversial immigration policy

Australia’s High Court ruled Wednesday that the nearly month-long detention of 157 ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka aboard a sea vessel last year was legal under the government’s Marine Powers Act.

The narrow 4-3 decision means that the detainees, of whom 50 were children, will not receive damages for their alleged false imprisonment, according to the judgment summaries.

Hugh de Kretser, executive director of Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre, which formed part of the Sri Lankans’ legal team, expressed his disappointment with the decision.

“Incommunicado detention on the high seas is a clear breach of Australia’s international human rights obligations,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, today’s decision confirms that our domestic law allows the Government to breach those obligations.”

Liberal Party MP Scott Morrison, who held the post of immigration minister when the Sri Lankans were detained, tweeted his approval of the decision.

The Sri Lankans had boarded a boat in India last June but were intercepted 16 days later in the Indian Ocean by an Australian customs ship.

After weeks of being held on the ship, the group was transferred to the Curin detention center in Western Australia because the Indian government said they would consider taking them back, according to Reuters.

When the group refused to meet with Indian officials, they were moved to another immigration center, this time on the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru, where they will remain until their status as refugees is decided.

The ethnic Tamils were heading to Australia to claim refugee status, claiming they had a well-founded fear of persecution in Sinhala-majority Sri Lanka following the end of the island-nation’s bloody civil war in 2009.

The case highlights Australia’s controversial immigration policy in which immigrants are often processed at offshore camps in Papua New Guinea, Christmas Island and Nauru.

Canberra says the restrictions are in place for the safety of immigrants risking their lives to reach its shores by sea.

TIME LGBT

Saks Backtracks in Transgender Discrimination Case

2014 Holiday Shopping Windows - Chicago, Illinois
Chris McKay—Getty Images

The company will no longer argue that transgender people lack legal protections

Luxury retailer Saks & Co. has dropped a controversial legal argument they put forward in December: that there’s no federal law prohibiting the company from discriminating against someone for being transgender.

Leyth Jamal, a former employee who identifies as a transgender woman, is suing Saks for discrimination in Texas. She alleges that she was mistreated by the company and ultimately fired because she is transgender. In response, Saks claimed that Title VII, the portion of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination based on sex, doesn’t cover transgender people.

On Jan. 26, after public criticism and a legal rebuke from the Department of Justice, Saks withdrew the motion. The change was first reported by Buzzfeed. Saks will continue to contest Jamal’s suit, but will now focus on the merits of her specific claims.

MORE Does Saks Have the Right to Fire a Transgender Employee?

Saks’ original position was contrary to recent federal court rulings and the views of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Justice. In December 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that all lawyers in the department would be taking the position that transgender discrimination is covered as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII.

In the Justice Department’s motion, officials assert a “strong interest” in the outcome of the case. And their response to Saks’ initial argument is summed up concisely: “Not so.”

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