The third in my series on crime victims, now published at Slate, arose from my disposition as a journalist (and, I suppose, as a person) to be contrary. I don’t mean that in the ornery or negative sense, but in the skeptical sense. As I looked around the criminal-justice reform community, and the media coverage of it, I saw such unanimity of opinion on the inevitability of reform’s passage that it made me wonder: What might they be missing?
And that’s how I settled on profiling Bill Otis, a former federal prosecutor who writes about criminal justice at the Crime and Consequences blog. Otis, more than any other commentator or spokesman for tough on crime policies, remains practically a solitary holdout for the status quo as Washington cheers on the reform movement. And, as I explain in the story, Otis is worth watching because he has some impressive trump cards to play that just might keep his side winning (as it has been all along).
My story examines Otis’ victim-themed arguments for maintaining the status quo in federal sentencing laws (and the logic extends to the states as well). I chide reformers for failing to voice a loud enough victim-centered counter-argument (though I do note some significant new voices starting to find a way to say that reducing punishment can be done in tandem with policies that help victims).
But my underlying point is one that’s articulated in the story by Otis’ frequent sparring partner, Doug Berman of Ohio State, who writes his own influential blog on sentencing from a more liberal point of view. I only touch on it in the story, but in my interview with Berman he explained at more length why he values Otis’ role in the debate even though the two can hardly agree on anything:
I do think it’s an enduring shame that we don’t have as much rigorous public policy debate about these issues as I think is needed. I think it’s a particular shame that both Bill and I have to resort to comments on blogs to really have somebody to mix it up with in a setting that I think should lead to lots and lots of mixing it up. …
It’s only as a result of really sustained engagement with these issues that you go from a useful but superficial first-cut instinct about a lot of this stuff, to get deeper into what’s really at stake, who are the real winners and losers in different proposals.
That’s why I read Otis regularly, and why I decided to write about him in a series that asks what needs of victims we neglect when we focus only on tough sentencing as justice for victims. His passionate, clear writing articulates the view that has prevailed for decades. And there’s a reason that it has — because many believe it.
There’s a bit of know-thy-enemy in my story, but I have a hard time thinking of Otis as an enemy, given his gracious agreement to talk to me. He recognized my obviously opposite leanings (a favorite target of Otis’ is the philanthropist George Soros, whose money funded the Soros Justice Fellowship that paid for my work on my series for the past year; also, Slate’s liberal leanings are hardly a secret). And yet he gamely engaged with me.
Full disclosure: Before I decided to write my story about Otis, he and I mixed it up in the comments on this blog post. I criticized him for his attack on a news story that I praised. The comments back and forth got a little heated. To some, that might justify a permanent grudge. But, like Berman, I believe there’s value when we see our ideas challenged. We might modify our ideas, or at least our strategy, as a result. Plus, the debate-club nerd in me (and, I suspect, in Otis) enjoys the mental exercise. It’s invigorating.
One other bit of backstory: As with all of the stories in this series, I began the research and reporting in spring 2014 and continued through the rest of that year and into the spring of 2015. I drafted this story in January and then revised it and updated it, after getting edits back, in June and July. In the Internet age, such a protracted schedule is unheard of, but it’s the nature of such a large beast as this series. But for this story in particular, given its strong grounding in the news, I spent a great deal of time in a state of anxiety, worried that something major would change in Washington politics to undermine the entire point of the story. Would Sen. Charles Grassley convert to the reform side? Would key legislation pass, contrary to my thesis that the traditionalists still hold sway? It seems we’re on the verge of new proposals that might unstick what’s stuck. But, at least for now, Washington’s gridlock didn’t magically disappear while my story was in queue. The basic storyline I developed more than a year ago never really changed, although I kept busy updating examples and developments in the interim between drafting it and publishing it.
In just the past few days, we’ve seen this by Andrew Cohen on the enduring politics of tough-on-crime, and this report by the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (a group Otis has worked with), with a counterattack by Families Against Mandatory Minimums), all of which adds up to pushback by the tough-on-crime side. So I’m glad that my story on Mr. Pushback himself has finally been published — before everyone else gets in on this theme.