Cornell professor of government Joseph Margulies describes the conundrum of reconciling the fact that prison sentences over 20 years are generally pointlessly cruel and unjust with the fury we feel against those who commit senseless mass murders. In particular Professor Margulies points to a new report by The Sentencing Project in support of their longstanding campaign to reduce the maximum prison sentence in the United States to 20 years, released on the same day that Erie County, New York, Judge Susan Eagan sentenced Buffalo shooter Payton Gendron to ten concurrent life sentences plus an additional 25 years to be served consecutively.
In this fifth column in a series about the murder of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers, Cornell professor of government Joseph Margulies argues that, for any good to come of Nichols’s death, we must judge his killers in a forgiving spirit. Professor Margulies explains what it means to judge in a forgiving spirit: to assess the actions of another anchored in the unshakeable belief that those who have done wrong are nonetheless one of us.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies points out that the murder of Tyre Nichols challenges the oversimplified conception of authority and race that prevails in this country. Drawing upon the language of historian Robin Kelley, Professor Margulies argues that police violence is the end result of a racialized processnot merely an expression of anti-Black racism by white police officers.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies points out that the Memphis police officers who beat Tyre Nichols to death were doing exactly what the SCORPION unit of the department was supposed to do. Professor Margulies argues that until we collectively quash the belief that “we” are threatened until “they” are brought to heel, society will futilely pursue public safety while disregarding public suffering.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies observes that the Memphis Police Department’s Policies and Procedures document is missing an entire section called “Response to Resistance,” which sets the rules governing the use of force by a Memphis officer, including deadly force. Professor Margulies points out that adopting or amending rules is not enough to solve the problem that led to the murder of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers; rather we police culture must change. Indeed, Margulies argues, the SCORPION unit was doing exactly what Memphis leaders inside and outside the Department wanted it to do.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies comments on the videos released by the City of Memphis documenting the murder of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers. Professor Margulies points out that the atrocious conduct captured on video reflects a police culture that encourages brutality and indifference, arguing that if the Memphis Police Department can’t change the culture they’ve created, their officers don’t deserve the badge.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies describes the crucial difference between a world where we ask, “What happened?” and one where we ask, “Who is to blame?” Professor Margulies explains that the first question seeks to identify the many factors that cause something bad to happen, with the goal of preventing that bad thing from happening again; in contrast, the second seeks only to punish.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies describes the work of the Cornell University Parole Initiative (CUPI), which works with incarcerated persons serving life sentences in New York prisons. Professor Margulies describes the work of CUPI student volunteers and argues that anyone who perceives today’s young people as entitled “snowflakes” should look more closely at what young people are doing and get out of the way for them to fix what older generations have broken.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies observes that complaints about American life seem always to reinforce our ruthlessly unforgiving society. Professor Margulies describes one example of our tendency to reduce our most serious problems into simple but existential tribal grievances and another example of our inclination as a society to turn reflexively to punishment and eschew compassionate understanding that seeks to create a diverse community bound by shared values—both characteristic of an unforgiving society.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies comments on two seemingly unrelated concerns expressed by readers: the policy of a local sheriff in Florida to publish mugshots of juveniles who have been charged with a felony, and the oppressively hot conditions of prison cells in Texas. Professor Margulies explains that both of these problems are products of an unforgiving society that insists on differentiating people into “us” versus “them.”
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies continues his discussion of why anger can benefit democracy, but he rebuts claims that only anti-democratic solutions can remedy the harms that are supposedly being inflicted on our society. Specifically, Professor Margulies points out as evidence of effective democratic processes the imminent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and the rejection by Kansas voters of a state constitutional amendment that could allow the legislature to restrict or prohibit abortions in that state.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies responds to an angry reader’s email response to his previous column, observing that anger can be a productive and healthy emotion but can also be all-consuming and destructive. Professor Margulies suggests that arguing over whose anger is righteous and whose is not is not productive; instead, we need something that strides above the arguments, a set of ideals against which we can measure whether a particular species of anger is one that society should honor and encourage.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies describes the tribal blame machine, which both sides use to demonize the “other” side and drive us apart. Professor Margulies argues that a mature democracy must reject the tribal blame machine and instead embrace a fair, sober, even-handed appraisal of the facts, free from hyperbole and pot-banging.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies observes that while the events of January 6, 2021, were “horrific,” “criminal,” and “anti-democratic,” he suggests that they were never a true threat to democracy. Professor Margulies points out that polling may be misleading and that overblown partisan rhetoric, by either side, does not equip us to confront true challenges to democracy when they do arise
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies explains why, when asked how he can defend someone accused of horrible crimes, he no longer uses the response that most criminal defense lawyers use—that a lawyer doesn’t defend their client’s behavior but instead holds the government to its burden by zealously defending their client’s rights. Instead, Professor Margulies responds to that question that he is defending the client’s humanity against society’s impulse to reduce a defendant to their deed, imprisoning them in their past.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies explains why social media is, by design, inimical to the idea of a forgiving society. He points out that, in general, we appreciate that a person makes choices not in a vacuum, but in the context of a combination of individual and societal factors, but social media eliminates this nuance and forces us to ignore what we ordinarily accept as the lesson of universal experience.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies points out that the language we use—particularly the language we use to describe and talk with incarcerated persons—is unduly limiting and focused on a singular event to the exclusion of broader context. Professor Margulies proposes that rather than asking “What did you do?” we should ask “What happened?”—which is a wider question that wonders, with curiosity and compassion, what factors, perhaps over months, years, or even generations, brought a human being to this place.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies describes a society in which no transgression is so severe that society dissolves the bonds that connect all of humanity by its very nature. Professor Margulies points out that we live in an age when demonization is a first impulse rather than a last resort, and the inclination to treat a fellow human being as irredeemably unworthy of membership is, for many people, irresistibly seductive.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies explains why stories of people who serve extensive sentences in prison and then turn around to do wonderful things set an impossible standard for others who equally deserve freedom yet cannot demonstrate such achievements. Professor Margulies argues that hundreds of thousands of men and women are serving impossibly long terms, and they, too, deserve to be free by virtue of the change they have inevitably undergone through their years behind bars.
Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies describes the ambivalence and fear many of us feel toward the “in between”—the space between where we are today and where we imagine we could be. Professor Margulies points out that if we allow it, the fear of the in between will always keep us from the world we deserve, so we must find the courage to push past the fear.