On the nightstand: Friday, 10/31/14

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

  • Sari Horwitz looks at crime in the fracking fields (the “dark side of the boom” in the Bakken oil play) through the experience of Dawn White, a tribal police officer fighting for her people against a wave of violence, drugs, and jurisdictional craziness. As is typical of Horowitz’s work, the story is both deeply reported and sensitively written. (Washington Post)
  • Mina Kimes’ powerful writing makes this long story move briskly. Devonta Pollard, a promising basketball star with a devoted mother as personal coach, almost loses everything when she entangles him in a crazy kidnapping plot. Then he faces even worse: testifying against her, and then living without her. (ESPN The Magazine)
  • Fawn Johnson describes the work of formerly incarcerated men now working as “violence interrupters” with Cure Violence’s Safe Streets operation in Baltimore. Johnson, explaining the work of “epidemiologist Gary Slutkin that applies the tenets of disease eradication to reducing shootings and homicides,” calls the men “the vaccine that, in Slutkin’s vision, will inoculate troubled communities to violent outbreaks.” (National Journal)
  • Dan Barry’s “This Land” column looks at life inside the Ferguson, Missouri, police department, where officers have endured months of threats and harassment. As Barry writes, “there is another side to this tragedy’s aftermath. It is not the only side, or the opposite side. Just another side.” (The New York Times)
  • Katia Savchuk talks to billionaire conservative B. Wayne Haynes Jr. about why he has put his money and energy behind Proposition 47, California’s criminal-justice-reform proposal on the ballot. (Forbes)

This not-quite-daily 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.

Kinship with the broken people

On my reporting trip to Los Angeles last month, one of the remarkable activists I met is Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries (I mentioned it briefly here, among my posts when I was on the road). In my upcoming series of stories on crime victims and criminal-justice reform, I’ll include the story of Boyle and the work he does at Homeboy to provide job training and other services to help former gang members just out of prison get on their feet and live productive, lawful lives.

In this video of a talk Boyle gave yesterday at Homeboy, he addressed one of the points I hear so often when I read about or engage with people about crime: that the fundamental problem is a failure to make moral choices and to take responsibility. Easy to say, but so divorced from the realities seen by people who do the hands-on work of fixing broken people. When we divide the world into good and bad, then to cast the bad into prison forever and ever becomes more acceptable — even when the evidence shows how excessive punishment and lack of services only deepens our problems.

Unlike me, Boyle comes at these questions from his faith (he’s a Jesuit priest). But I love how he explains why that response to crime misses the point:

On the nightstand: Tuesday, 10/28/14

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

  • Joshua Davis and David Wolman wrote the hell out of their story about a Venetian burglar’s heist of a famous painting in a tangled plot with a mobster. Some of my picks as nightstand reading are for policy wonks only, I admit, but this is true nightstand reading. (Epic magazine)
  • StoryCorps brings together a victim terrorized by a bank robbery, and the young man who committed the crime. “I’m really proud of you,” David Ned tells Darius Monroe as they talk about Ned’s mission to help Monroe rebuild his life. (NPR) Monroe produced a film about his experience, Evolution of a Criminal, that will be shown on the wonderful Independent Lens series on PBS.
  • Bryan Schatz’s engaging story of a prison escape artist is one of those stories that makes you wonder why criminals talk to reporters (he’s in solitary and brags that he’ll try to escape again if they ever let him out). It’s also a reminder of how childhood neglect and abuse snowballs into ever-more-serious crimes until we get a Douglas Alward, condemned to life in prison. (5280 magazine)
  • On her blog, my friend and former colleague Daphne Eviatar gave wise advice to people like me who stay immersed in news about crime, trauma, and strife. A respite from such news reminds us that a more complete picture of reality is not nearly so scary and depressing. I’m too work-obsessed to take her advice immediately, but I recognize its logic and appeal. Maybe some day…
  • On the blog, I reacted to a report on police harassment of journalists in the Ferguson, Missouri, protests.

This not-quite-daily 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.

War on press in Ferguson

It’s unlikely this new report on police harassment of journalists at the Ferguson, Missouri, protests will generate much sympathy from the public. And that’s a shame, considering that anyone seeking a fact-based discussion about Michael Brown’s death and the aftermath depends on the work of those journalists. But, at the very least, I hope its findings get heard where they count most: in police commands nationwide.

As Noam Cohen reports in today’s New York Times, the PEN American Center found dozens of violations of press freedoms, going beyond the most obvious, the arrests of journalists (of which there were 21, not just the handful that news reports at the time suggested). Threats, interference, and hostility pepper the anecdotes collected by PEN. Consider this one from the report:

In the early morning hours of August 19, reporters Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept and Lukas Hermsmeier of the German newspaper Bild were driving near the area of the protests, making their way towards a “command center” that had been set up for journalists. Crossing W. Florissant Ave., they heard police megaphones tell protestors that it was their “final warning.” The pair stopped the car and got out to see what was happening. While talking to a group of peaceful protestors, police fired tear gas in their direction. The interviewees left, and the two reporters returned to W. Florissant to document what munitions the police were using.

At this point, the police were patrolling W. Florissant in armored vehicles and intermittently firing tear gas canisters. The two reporters needed to cross W. Florissant to return to their car, and intended to walk along a street running parallel to W. Florissant until they could cross the avenue in an area not filled with tear gas. Devereaux described the ensuing situation:

“At one point the police vehicle takes a left into the neighborhood we’re in. If they take another left they’ll be on the street we’re on. We decided we should identify ourselves as press as they’re coming into neighborhood, to make sure they know we’re journalists. We come out from the shadows with our hands up. I have a press ID card in my hand, yelling, ‘Press! Press! Press! We’re journalists! Media! Media! Media!’”

Police in one vehicle shone a light on the pair and directed them forward. They advanced, still shouting “Press!” and were directed towards another armored vehicle. As they were approaching that vehicle, the group of officers in the vehicle that had initially directed them to move forward began to fire rubber bullets at them. Devereaux was struck once in the back and Hermsmeier was shot twice. According to Devereaux, the police had “made no verbal commands that we had heard” before beginning to shoot.

The reporters dove behind a car to get out of the line of fire, at which point police swarmed around them. They repeatedly told police that they were press just trying to get to their car. Police arrested them using plastic flex cuffs and put them in the back of an armored car. Devereaux stated, “They didn’t tell us we were under arrest, and didn’t tell us why. They asked us why we were out, and I said the same reason you are- we’re working, we’re journalists.”

Police defenders will claim that journalists who overstep their bounds at a dangerous scene like the Ferguson protests should expect to land in trouble. Fair enough, if that’s what happens. But, as the report makes clear, time and again police shot first (metaphorically or actually) and asked questions later.

By its very nature, a report cataloging abuses overlooks the many instances when things worked as they should. Indeed, the report carries this important caveat:

This report is not a blanket condemnation of the law enforcement officers who policed the Ferguson protests. Many of the officers no doubt acted in good faith and were trying to protect the safety of their fellow officers and those present at the protests under difficult circumstances. At some points during the protests, individuals present in the crowds were armed and fired weapons. Several of the journalists interviewed for this report acknowledged that some police officers allowed them to do their jobs without interference, and that the police attitude towards the press varied depending on who was on duty and was generally more hostile at night than during the day.

But the PEN report, in summaries of multiple confrontations, makes plain what really motivated many arrests and other harassment: The police didn’t want witnesses to their extreme overreactions as they made war on residents and protestors. And good luck with that tactic. When every cellphone and Twitter account can be used to “report” the news, shutting down professional newsgathering fails at its primary mission, to conceal, while at the same time guaranteeing an over-reliance on amateur reports that probably lack verification and might only repeat rumors.

Contrary to myth, the press is not naturally antagonistic to police. In fact, the real problem is that journalists usually report police allegations against crime suspects without skepticism and regularly hype violent crime, feeding a perception that we live in an out-of-control, predatory world. Reporters and police can be personal allies, sharing a common experience of exposure (albeit in different ways and to differing degrees) to trauma that most people would find intolerable.

But, when the press actually does its job as a public watchdog, police must respect and accommodate that — and remember that their authority is not absolute in a free society.

On the nightstand: Friday, 10/24/14

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

  • Hanna Rosin, in a deconstruction of The American Life’s Serial podcast, calls the true-crime narrative now in its fourth week a potentially “truly radical” crime reporting form that is audio’s “New Journalism moment.” Either that, Rosin writes, or producer Sarah Koenig is manipulating us by saying she doesn’t know yet what to believe from her reinvestigation of a murder 15 years ago. Or, in a third theory, Rosin suggests Koenig could be acting like an amateur, taking us with her through the roiling emotional swings that are common in crime reporting. Like Rosin, I’m obsessed with Serial, and I like her smart yet uncertain take on what it is we’re obsessed with. (Slate)
  • Laura Eggerston told the story of Corporal Nathan Cirillo’s death in the Ottawa shootings powerfully and evocatively, by focusing on the thoughts and actions of a lawyer who happened upon the scene. What Barbara Winters did, and especially what she told Cirillo in his final moments, will stick with you as a pure expression of what compassion for a victim looks like. (Hamilton Spectator)
  • Frank Serpico (yes, that Frank Serpico) penned a long essay about the common thread running between his notorious case of police corruption to today’s scandals over police brutality. He writes about how someone who loves police and their work can still advocate for reform and accountability. (Politico)

This not-quite-daily 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: Thursday, 10/23/14

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

  • Jerry Adler profiles Max Kenner, the prison education innovator whose program in New York prisons for Bard College has gained national visibility. The numbers of its graduates are small, relative to America’s prison population. But, as Adler makes clear in this engaging narrative, the success is in the personal stories of liberal-arts grads who better themselves while incarcerated. (Smithsonian)
  • Lauren Foster and Daniel Funt look at Save Our Streets, a violence intervention group with 15 sites across New York City. It’s modeled on Chicago’s famed Ceasefire program, now called Cure Violence. This story goes into more depth than others I’ve seen (outside of academic papers) to describe the methods used to reach out to youth prone to perpetuating a culture of violence. (The Bronx Ink)
  • Reporter-columnist Jim Dwyer, using a Drug Policy Alliance report last week as his starting point, asks what difference it makes that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to reduce marijuana possession busts hasn’t panned out. Dwyer’s subject: a working man effectively ruined over a remarkably trivial accusation. (The New York Times)
  • Shane Bauer makes two main points in his story about visiting a trade show where police test various armaments for military-style operations: far more government money gets spent on weapons and related gear than just the surplus gear that became an issue after the police response in Ferguson; and the people buying and selling that gear, in what amounts to a multi-billion-dollar industry, are pretty sensitive about letting critics watch what they do. (Mother Jones)

This not-quite-daily 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.

Project update: Off to NYC

Time for another reporting trip, this time to New York City. And there’s a story behind that.

Last January, I was in New York as a finalist for a Soros Justice Fellowship. The morning of my final interview by the selection committee, I was reading news online and discovered that one of my planned stories in my crime-victims series had just taken an unexpected turn.

My project proposal included a story about the work of Susan Herman, a longtime victims advocate whose “parallel justice” theory had intrigued me since I first read about it (see past posts here). I had interviewed her years earlier for a short article on it (a sidebar to a longer story about restorative-justice dialogue in crimes of violence). Now, I proposed to the Soros folks, I would visit one of the sites where police used her methods to improve services for victims.

The news about Herman was that she had just taken a job as deputy commissioner for collaborative policing in Bill Bratton’s second act as commissioner of the New York Police Department. I blogged about that and then headed off to my Soros fellowship interview, worried that if Herman’s victims work were put on hold, a parallel justice story might not be timely.

I needn’t have worried. Further reporting, which I’ll advance this week by meeting with Herman and others, has shown that her high-ranking post in NYPD has everything to do with victim services and with the broader view my series takes on victim advocacy: namely, to ask what we can and should do for victims that we don’t accomplish with an approach to criminal justice focused mainly on punishment of offenders. Now, in addition to looking at how parallel justice works in a smaller city, I will explore how Herman’s work might play out in the nation’s largest city.

I have a lot more reporting to do on this story before I come to any conclusions about what I’m observing. But at least those fears I had last January, that one of my stories had just cratered, turned out to be far from true.

On the nightstand: Monday, 10/20/14

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

  • Mike Kessler explains in a long, compelling narrative how abused children are at the root of the sex trade: as sexual abuse victims who then get trafficked by pimps, leading often to a life of exploitation by men who sell and buy them. Branded like cattle and often too immature to even recognize their plight, it’s clear they are repeat victims of the proverbial victimless crime of prostitution, and not simply criminals who made bad choices. (Los Angeles Magazine)
  • Alexander Nazaryan didn’t wait for the conclusion of the murder trial against Gigi Jordan to tell her story in depth. His feature explores not just the circumstances of how and why she killed her autistic child, but also the science of autism and the challenges parents face. (Newsweek)
  • In another long magazine narrative about a mom with an autistic child who tried to kill her, Hanna Rosin tells the story of Kelli Stapleton, now serving at least 10 years for her crime. As in the Newsweek story, the mom in this story is intelligent, caring, and involved in her child’s care. And yet she chose murder-suicide as her escape from this parenting hell (she failed on both counts, but her daughter suffered terribly). Most intriguing angle, to me: where Rosin explains what she means when she writes, ” a parent who presents herself as a genuine victim of her own child is approaching a taboo.” (New York)
  • Alizah Salario describes a project in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyesant neighborhood to remember gun-violence victims with silhouettes placed at the shooting sites. A collaboration of a city councilman and a neighborhood activist, the campaign is both jarring and inspiring, forcing the rest of us to think about the cumulative loss and what needs to change. (Beacon)
  • A large team of New York Times reporters digs into the circumstances surrounding the latest sports-violence scandal, this time in Sayreville, New Jersey, and come up with a detailed report with hints that this time victims’ advocates may be overreacting, a la Duke lacrosse. Is it possible this is now a case of criminalizing youthful misbehavior and denying suspects their rights?
  • David Rosenberg writes about (and shows samples from) a years-long photo-documentary project by Isadora Kosofsky. “Vinny and David” tells the story of a family and its experience with juvenile detention. (Slate)

This not-quite-daily 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 ego?

Screen Shot 2014-10-19 at 9.07.18 AMThe big event in criminal-justice literature right now is the impending publication of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. The author, a crusading advocate and leader of Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, already plugged his book on The Daily Show, an early indication of how much attention we can expect from his memoir about his work.

There should be no doubt about the eloquence of his words (check out his TED talk, if you aren’t among the million-plus who have already), or the impact of his work (from the wrongful-conviction case that launched his career to the leading role he played in convincing the Supreme Court to abolish mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles). But wouldn’t the reader be better served by reading an independent appraisal, rather than a memoir?

That’s the question at the heart of The New York Times Book Review’s full-page review today. And the reviewer asking it has the professional standing to do so: Ted Conover, the respected journalist who has made a career of an immersive reporting style married with literary writing. Conover’s work, while often placing himself at the center of the action, is not about self-glorification. It’s not the sort of self-indulgent journalistic memoir that drives me nuts, where the subtitle of far too many magazine articles and books could be “this thing happened to me, and so I want to examine it from the perspective of me, me, me.” Instead, Conover participates in whatever he writes about to understand and explain it better.

Here’s how Conover addresses this key question about Stevenson’s book:

As I read this book I kept thinking of Paul Farmer, the physician who has devoted his life to improving health care for the world’s poor, notably Haitians. The men are roughly contemporaries, both have won MacArthur grants, both have a Christian bent and Harvard connections, Stevenson even quotes Farmer — who, it turns out, sits on the board of the Equal Justice Initiative. Farmer’s commitment to the poor was captured in Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains” (and Kidder’s advance praise adorns the back cover of “Just Mercy”).

A difference, and one that worried me at first, is that Farmer was fortunate enough to have Kidder as his Boswell, relieving him of the awkward task of extolling his own good deeds. Stevenson, writing his own book, walks a tricky line when it comes to showing how good can triumph in the world, without making himself look solely responsible.

Luckily, you don’t have to read too long to start cheering for this man. Against tremendous odds, Stevenson has worked to free scores of people from wrongful or excessive punishment, arguing five times before the Supreme Court. And, as it happens, the book extols not his nobility but that of the cause, and reads like a call to action for all that remains to be done.

Because it’s Ted Conover who’s joined the Stevenson fan club, and because he’s applied his judgment to the memoir-as-bragsheet question, I’m more apt to believe him. Then again, I’m already a Stevenson admirer. He’s one of the sources for my upcoming series on crime victims’ place in the criminal-justice reform movement. Now, at least, I have Ted Conover’s word for it when I wonder if Stevenson should have deferred to someone else to tell his story.

On the nightstand: Saturday, 10/18/14

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

  • Craig Malisow revisits the Houston serial-murder spree of Dean Corll and Wayne Henley through the eyes of a woman who witnessed their final act. The rest of her life has been in turmoil since then, and yet she was considered more a suspect than a victim. (Houston Press)
  • Robert Kolker documents eight New York City traffic victims and the circumstances that prompt their families to seek solutions that will prevent the next fatality. (New York)
  • Ashley Cleek’s story on the only Scottsboro Boy to be pardoned during his lifetime examines the ripple effects on lives long after an injustice and the difficulties of pursuing reparations. (Life of the Law)
  • Rebecca Davis O’Brien reviews Probable Cause, a book of photography by Matt Gunther from nine years Gunther spent on the streets of Newark photographing Newark police and the people they encountered. O’Brien grapples with a central question about the images: Is it possible to depict a troubled police department in a troubled city without taking a stand on the righteousness of the policing work? (The New Yorker)

This not-quite-daily 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.

A writer and editor on law, crime, and business