Nightstand reading: Thursday, 3/5/15

Recent good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime, crime victims, and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Politico Magazine‘s “Justice Issue” is a nightstand-reading list in itself. The issue includes:  Scott C. Johnson on how Oakland police have turned their brutal past into better relations with residents. Chris Mitchell on Bill Bratton’s challenge to control crime and his officers. Nikole Hannah-Jones“Letter from Black America,” describing in vivid scenes what it feels like to fear the police in ways that are invisible to white America. And Michael Hirsh with yet another exploration of the conservative-liberal alliance for criminal justice reform.
  • Josh Dean‘s “Stopwatch Gang” has all the thrills of a good bank-robber caper, which it is. But then it hits the reader with something much deeper, about friendship, redemption, and life. (The Atavist)
  • columnist Maia Szalavitz tells the story of Matt Bowden, aka Starboy, whose adventures in pharmacological legal highs illustrate the folly of drug enforcement policy. As cops flounder in their attempts to ban new chemicals and enforce existing laws, Bowden and New Zealand show the alternative: regulating a market to make it safer. (Pacific Standard)
  • Leon Neyfakh explains a major flaw in sentencing policy that classifies people as violent criminals even when they have not harmed another person and have no likelihood of doing so. His story at Slate expands on a story  expands on one earlier the same day at The Marshall Project, in which Dana Goldstein explained how the “Cut50″ movement cannot reach its goal of reducing the states’ prison population by half without releasing some convicted of violent offenses. That report, part of Goldstein’s always-smart series of explainers called Justice Lab, includes a cool interactive graphic/calculator that allows the reader to play with the mix of policy decisions to make the math work.

Other noteworthies:

  • Chicago Tribune‘s Phil Kadner reported on a bill in Illinois that would protect domestic-violence victims who call police for help, only to risk eviction by triggering laws meant to keep apartments crime-free.
  • A Miami Herald team won a prestigious Goldsmith Award from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for Innocents Lost, an investigative series about failures to protect victims of child abuse.
  • Joe Duggan of the Omaha World-Herald quoted from a letter sent to the state legislature by 25 murder victims’ family members. They explain why they support repeal of the death penalty, citing reasons that are far more typical of victims’ survivors than outsiders imagine.
  • Carla Murphy of Colorlines helpfully summarized a recent panel discussion on young men of color as crime victims. Her story links to a video of the event, as well as to the underlying report by Danielle Sered of Vera Institute’s Common Justice.

This periodic digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

Just plain wrong

Over at the Open Society Foundations blog, I wrote this post about the reluctance of policymakers and judges to confront the morality of excessive prison sentences. I was provoked by a quote in this otherwise excellent story by Erik Eckholm in Friday’s Times, but I’ve been thinking about the issue for a while as I report on criminal-justice reform.

The issue: Rather than justify sentencing reform with financial arguments alone — that the reason to let people out of prison is to save money, and nothing else — we should be asking about the morality of holding people well beyond any rational justification. And we should ask that about the hardest cases, not just the sorts that dominate the discussion (nonviolent and minor drug and property crimes).

There are many other arguments against excessive sentences, namely those based on all the evidence that they simply don’t work as advertised. Those typically get second billing behind the budget argument. Then, way down the list, you find a fringe minority voicing the moral question. By my way of thinking, the other arguments merely support the ultimate argument. In other words, because these sentences don’t work and cause all sorts of unintended problems, it is all the more immoral to hold people beyond what’s absolutely necessary for safety’s sake.

Anyway, I hope you’ll read and share my OSF post and discuss it on my Facebook page or on this blog.

OSF sponsors the Soros Justice Fellowships program, which supports my work for a year on an upcoming series of stories exploring crime victims’ perspective on criminal-justice reforms.

Nightstand reading: Sunday, 3/1/15

Recent good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime, crime victims, and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • The legendary investigative reporter Tom Robbins previews a trial of three Attica guards accused of brutality against an inmate. Robbins explains not only the central case but the culture that surrounds it, where guards turn their undeniably difficult and dangerous jobs into a license to beat and maim with impunity. (Marshall Project, with a version also appearing on the front page of The New York Times)
  • David Welna takes us to Guantanamo Bay with four 9/11 victims’ survivors, asking them to talk about the experience of watching a portion of the trial of accused 9/11 conspirators. Their responses prove humbling and human, much calmer and wiser than most of us would imagine ourselves in that situation. (NPR)
  • Brian Joseph, a UC-Berkeley investigative reporting fellow, dove deeply into the private foster-care business — and one very sad and disturbing Texas case — to tell the story of lax standards and neglect in a child-care function that’s more about profits than welfare. (Mother Jones)
  • In another horror story about the foster-care system, Garrett Therolf‘s vivid, horrifying view from inside an emergency shelter for foster children provides a depressing preview of the next generation of prison inmates. Despite the hard work of social workers and police, this looks like an unmanageable system filled with hopelessness. (Los Angeles Times)
  • Emily Yoffe continues her role as reporter-skeptic on the campus-rape beat with a well-researched takedown of a new documentary, The Hunting Ground. The film is no friend to victims, Yoffe writes, due to its selective use of facts, ignoring inconvenient facts, and hyping of the rape threat on campuses. (Slate)
  • Robert Samuels puts us in the room as men who were locked up as teens for violent crimes use their common bond — a book club they joined behind bars — as a lifeline now that they’re free. The story focuses on a scene in a Washington, D.C., classroom, where the former prisoners meet with students as part of an effort to help others avoid the same troubles that befell them. (Washington Post)
  • Jordan Teicher‘s thoughtful essay on how crime photojournalism has changed over the decades accompanies a photo essay with startling and beautiful imagery. (Slate)

This periodic digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

Nightstand reading: Wednesday, 2/25/15

Recent good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime, crime victims, and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Connie Schultz uses her long history of reporting in Cleveland to describe the standoff between critics of the Cleveland Police Department, including the Justice Department, and its defenders. The debate encapsulates the national debate over police legitimacy — the notion that police cannot do their job and work with the community if they lose the community’s trust. (Politico Magazine)
  • Roy Wenzl wrote a deeply emotional and sympathetic portrait of Kerri Rawson, the daughter of BTK serial killer Dennis Rader. Veering from anger to forgiveness and back to anger, Rawson suffers from trauma as a victim herself as she tries to understand how the father she loved could have done such things to women and children. (Wichita Eagle)
  • Maurice Chammah examines the effects of the Prison Rape Elimination Act through the devastating story of “John,” a young prisoner housed with older, tougher men. John says he’s been raped so many times he lost count. As Chammah examines his case, he explores what PREA could do to improve safety for inmates like John, and where states’ efforts to reform prison practices should go next. (Marshall Project)
  • Alysia Santo looks at the long-running battle between the privately owned bail-bonds industry and government-run pretrial release programs in a new light: how the embattled industry fights to preserve its business by dreaming up new ways to make money from crime. (Marshall Project)
  • Mark Joseph Stern reports on the “surprisingly productive and enlightened” state laws that seek a solution to the campus-rape-investigation mess. The competing interests include victims’ and suspects’ rights, and universities’ prerogatives and duties versus those of law enforcement. (Slate)
  • Hannah Rappleye and Lisa Riordan Seville continue their series on mass incarceration with a story about how colleges use juvenile records to block applicants from enrolling in their programs — even though the whole point of juvenile justice should be to give kids a second chance before a public, adult criminal record can follow them through life. (Beacon Reader)
  • Carrie Johnson and Evie Stone explain how state laws on vacatur treat sex workers as victims, helping them wipe away criminal records when they can show that they were trafficked against their will. The story focuses on a woman near Dallas who describes how her pimp enslaved her. “I just want to live a better life than I have lived,” she says. (NPR)

This periodic digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

Snippet from a survivor’s story

About three years before her murder, Marilyn Sage Meagher with her daughter Kelley.
About three years before her murder, Marilyn Sage Meagher with her daughter Kelley.

I just hit “send” on the fourth installment of my series of seven feature stories about crime victims for Slate. I won’t predict when the series will run — all my past predictions have turned out to be wildly optimistic — but the lack of visible progress is merely an illusion! I’m happy with how my work of the past several months is coming together into stories about people who defy conventional wisdom about who victims are and how they should react.

In reviewing my notes and recorded interviews, I ran across a snippet of one conversation I want to share here. In this conversation, I’m interviewing Kelley Watts, who’s talking about the murder 21 years earlier of her mother, Marilyn Sage Meagher. Her uncle (the “Johnny” she refers to in the conversation) is John Sage, who founded Bridges to Life, a group that takes crime victims into prisons to counsel prisoners on empathy and responsibility. Watts had never before spoken to a journalist about her experience, and my meeting with her was arranged hurriedly shortly before I arrived in Houston. So I knew too little about her when I sat down to talk to her.

We talked about the services she did or didn’t receive as the survivor of a murder victim — this happened just before she headed off to college as a freshman — and during that discussion it slowly dawned on me why she knows so much now about psychology.

Give a listen:

On the nightstand: Friday, 2/20/15

Recent good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime, crime victims, and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Radley Balko concludes his series showing bite mark evidence to be junk science and a factor in many wrongful convictions (I marked the start of the series on Monday’s nightstand-reading list). Part 2 traces the history of courts’ blithe acceptance of the evidence. Part 3 shows the lengths to which defenders of the practice attack skeptics. The final installment asks how the legal and forensic science communities can find their way out of the morass that the series describes.
  • Peter Maass looks deeply into the strange and tragic case of Stephen Kim, whose life was destroyed after he spoke to reporter James Rosen of Fox News. The circumstances surrounding the government’s pursuit of Kim on espionage charges come into much clearer focus now that Kim has spoken at length with Maass to tell his story. (The Intercept, which also published a half-hour film version here)
  • Nicholas Schmidle‘s story of Eric Harroun is haunting and deeply sad. How the troubled Army veteran ended up living the mercenary life, fighting the Assad regime in Syria, and then dying of a heroin overdose, is a tale intertwined with U.S. government handlers who had used Harroun as an informant. (The New Yorker)
  • Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken tell the sordid tale of outsourced debt collection by government contractors, focusing on one Texas law firm that has long thrived on the business of soaking the poor for huge fees tacked onto traffic tickets and unpaid tolls. (Side stories: Mel Hicken was a student of mine at Syracuse University, and back when I edited Texas Lawyer newspaper in the 1980s and early 1990s we broke a lot of stories about the same racket by the same people, which goes to show how impervious to criticism these guys can be.) (

This periodic digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

On the nightstand: Monday, 2/16/15

Recent good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime, crime victims, and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • In a two-part series “Cops See It Differently,” a team of This American Life producers brilliantly illustrates why both sides in the race-and-policing fight talk past each other, and how we might improve those relations. Brian Reed looked at the Milwaukee police department’s troubled history and asked how a department can protect citizens when its most vulnerable victims are, or are viewed as, criminals, too. Miki Meeks examined the devastating effects of zero-tolerance policing in Miami Gardens, Florida (piggybacking on important reporting by Miami Herald and Fusion journalists). And Robin Semien and Sean Cole told the story of Las Vegas, one of hundreds of police departments undergoing racial-bias training — and an example of how it’s working. Throughout, we hear the views of the police, not caricatures of brutes but honest, caring professionals who want to get this right and want — as urged by FBI Director James Comey, whose important speech last week on this topic gets quoted — to be honest enough to admit the central role that race plays in this. (This American Life, part one and part two)
  • Trey Bundy exposes internal memos in the Jehovah’s Witnesses hierarchy making coverups of sexual abuse of children official church doctrine. Claiming Biblical inspiration for the policies, church elders silence victims and hide allegations from police, allowing abusers to claim additional victims, according to the report. (Reveal)
  • Radley Balko starts his series on bite mark evidence with a powerful punch, declaring that a practice that lacks all scientific heft has nonetheless managed to survive — and put innocent people in prison — by bullying critics and fooling juries. He starts with a man who was saved from more years in prison only because the saliva residue on the bite mark contained someone else’s DNA. The series continues this week and should be memorable. (Washington Post)
  • Leon Neyfakh explains how a new database compiled by New York’s Legal Aid Society will allow defense lawyers to search the records of police witnesses for past complaints of misbehavior. A police union demands to know where to find a database listing all the good that police officers do. Neyfakh’s answer is worth reading. (Slate)
  • On the blog, I wrote about the Voices From Within Project, in which Sing Sing prison inmates videotape statements warning kids to avoid the mistakes they made, apologizing to their victims, and expressing great regret for what they have done. I explained why the videos reminded me of the next phase of my work on an upcoming series about crime victims. I also listed the Polk Award winners on criminal justice and critiqued a New York Times story that is a rare example of a news story that explains essential legal facts about blame for deaths in police custody.

This periodic digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

Two cop cases, two discrete questions

Be still, my law-nerd heart! A story fronting Saturday’s New York Times actually spells out at length the legal questions at the heart of two grand jury decisions in cases of New York Police Department shootings.

One of the primary weaknesses in legal reporting, as I see it, is the frequent failure of news stories to explain the legal substance behind why a case turned out as it did. Citizens see a video of Eric Garner’s death, or read of Akai Gurley’s fatal shooting by a police officer in an apartment building stairwell, and they apply their own judgments to decide whether the cops committed crimes. If you think a cop stepped over a line, then in your mind he committed a crime. Which crime? Well, whichever one seems strong enough to express outrage. Murder sounds good. Let’s go with that.

But of course the law specifically defines the elements of any crime. Homicide comes in many gradations, depending on the killer’s state of mind. Was it cold, calculated decision to eliminate a witness? A careless mistake gone tragically awry? Self-defense? Force justified to save a life? We have laws, which vary from state to state, to accommodate these very real distinctions and to define legitimate defenses that lower or negate criminal charges.

Sometimes journalists explain the relevant questions when covering arrests, indictments, plea bargains, trials, and appeals. Often, they do not. Balancing the need to be clear and interesting enough to have your story read or watched, while also explaining what actually just happened, is no easy task. It doesn’t help that many editors and producers hold frightfully low expectations of the public’s appetite for a meaty legal lesson.

So, kudos to James C. McKinley Jr. and J. David Goodman, with assists from Al Baker, Nate Schweber, and a team of editors, for explaining the applicable legal definitions in the indictment of NYPD officer Peter Liang last week for shooting Gurley, and for comparing that case to the legal (as opposed to political) circumstances in the videotaped death of Garner. Where one case (Liang’s) might have seemed like a blameless mistake and the other (Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s, in Garner’s death) like a deliberate use of deadly force, the law isn’t quite so simple, as the story makes plain.

I’m not saying the indictment decisions were correct on these bases. But now I do understand more about the relevant law that’s applied to police officers’ actions in situations like these.

Crime at the Polks

Here are the criminal-justice-journalism winners at one of the industry’s major awards, the Polk Awards, announced yesterday, quoting the descriptions from the press release:

Award for Justice Reporting

Julie K. Brown of The Miami Herald and two New York Times reporters, Michael Schwirtz and Michael Winerip, will share the George Polk Award for Justice Reporting for uncovering appalling evidence of guards brutalizing inmates at correction and detention facilities. The officers acted with impunity even when the abuse led to profound injury and death.

Brown found that a 50-year-old inmate who died in custody at the Dade Correctional Facility had been locked in a hot shower and scalded to death. Her reporting further established that police, prosecutors, and a medical examiner had abetted prison authorities in covering up that case and others across Florida. Top officials were replaced, dozens of guards were fired, fresh approaches to incarcerating the mentally ill have been undertaken, and criminal investigations are underway as a result of the reporting.
“Behind bars, a brutal and unexplained death”
“At a violent Florida prison, a death foreshadowed”
“For allegedly brutal prison guard, day of reckoning arrives”

Schwirtz and Winerip exposed a pattern of abuse of inmates—some beaten while they were handcuffed—in New York City’s jail complex on Rikers Island, using records and interviews to compile 129 instances of serious injury at the hands of frontline officers and supervisors in a single year. They reported that officials cleansed an audit of its most damning instances of brutality and curtailed other probes at the behest of an influential union chief who shut down the entire court transportation system one morning so an inmate scheduled to testify against officers could not appear. These and other revelations have spurred resignations, dismissals, new investigations, and a Justice Department lawsuit seeking to place city jails under federal oversight.
“Rikers: Where Mental Illness Meets Brutality in Jail”
“Report Found Distorted Data on Jail Fights at Rikers Island”
“At Rikers Island, Union Chief’s Clout is a Roadblock to Reform”

Award for Local Reporting

The George Polk Award for Local Reporting will go to Tim NovakChris Fusco, and Carol Marin of The Chicago Sun-Times for dogged investigative reports in the face of considerable resistance by police and prosecutors over a 10-year-old homicide case involving a nephew of Richard M. Daley, the former Chicago mayor and Cook County state attorney. Their reporting reopened the case and led to a guilty plea by the former mayor’s nephew. A special prosecutor affirmed Sun-Times’ accounts that the killer had been shielded from prosecution in what amounted to an elaborate conspiracy.
“The Killing of David Koschman”

Award for State Reporting

Four reporters at The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C.—Doug PardueGlenn SmithJennifer Berry Hawes, and Natalie Caula Hauff—will receive the George Polk Award for State Reporting for “Till Death Do Us Part,” a five-part series on the domestic abuse deaths of 300 women in the past decade—one every 12 days. They uncovered a culture of violence in South Carolina, where male abusers face a maximum of 30 days in jail for brutalizing a woman but up to five years in prison for cruelty to a dog. The state has 65 county animal shelters but just 18 safe houses for battered women. The Post and Courier‘s reporting began after the Violence Police Center called South Carolina’s rate of male-on-female homicides the worst in the nation. Their work evoked a strong response from state political leaders vowing reforms. The Center for Investigative Reporting consulted on and provided funding for this project.
“Till Death Do Us Part”

The voices from within

A common tough-on-crime assumption about people convicted of violent crimes is that they lack any sense of responsibility toward their victims; that they hurt or killed out of sheer evil and cruelty, and any remorse they show at trial or in prison is simply a con to win sympathy.

But, when we talk to them and hear their stories and feel their anguish, we get a different sense of things. It doesn’t make everything right. It doesn’t condone what they did or excuse them from punishment. But it does remind us they are human beings who made very big mistakes. Once we realize that, it becomes harder to dehumanize them as monsters and animals. Out of that might come a more informed discussion about sentencing and prison policies.

On Monday, I’ll begin writing the fourth installment of my upcoming series on crime victims. This one focuses on a remarkable program in which victims of crime and survivors of murder victims go into prisons to counsel inmates, to help them see the harm they have caused, and to try to equip them with the skills they need to function as productive members of society when they get out. I was privileged to watch two graduation ceremonies behind bars in which dozens of inmates, having completed a 14-week program led by crime victims, stood up and spoke from their hearts to thank the victims and to talk about their regrets. It changed me to witness it.

So the timing was perfect when I read today in The New York Times about the Voices From Within Project and a stunning, newly published video (see below) in which the producers set up a camera in a room and invited inmates at New York’s Sing Sing prison to tell their stories. The project’s website includes extended clips from more prison inmates.

Producer Dan Slepian introduces the six-minute video with a four-minute talk in which he tells how the volunteer project will now give New York City officials a tool to teach young people about the harm that comes from gun violence. It’s a commendable project. And it teaches lessons to us all — not just lessons useful to violence-prone young people, but for those of us who don’t imagine the searing pain that these men feel for having destroyed lives.

Here’s the video: 

A writer and editor on law, crime, and business