Photo finish

Violence interventionist James Clark, left, and four young men he’s counseling. Just hours later, three of the young men were shot. Then a second shooting five days later claimed the life of DeAndre Kelley, seated at far right. Photo by Whitney Curtis for Politico. Used with permission.

Covering gun violence and policing has taught me that no matter how long the reporting, writing, and editing of a story might take, the stories can change in an instant, right on deadline. That happened to me, for example, when I wrote this story for TakePart on Minneapolis. After months of reporting, writing, and editing, we went down to the wire with changes after two controversial police shootings occurred on the eve of publication. Now it’s happened again, in a particularly sad turn of events.

The Trace and Politico just published my story challenging Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ notion that increasing federal gun prosecutions can lower urban violence. We chose St. Louis as a case study because it boasts two relevant distinctions: It already has the most aggressive federal gun-prosecution rate in the country, while at the same time having the highest gun-violence rate among large cities. Although it would take more study to prove that federal gun prosecutions and their long sentences fail to reduce crime, it’s safe to say that they’re not the panacea that Sessions portrays them as. So I used the St. Louis experience to revisit a topic I have written about before, on the evidence of what actually works to reduce gun violence.

I wanted the story to look not just at what doesn’t seem to work, but also at which strategies might work better. For that angle, I focused on James Clark, a well-known violence intervention activist. I first encountered Clark back in December 2015, when I was in St. Louis on an assignment for The New York Times. When I landed the latest assignment, I decided to use Clark as a voice for the violence-reduction strategies that could do more good if they were given needed resources.

On Saturday, August 19, as my Trace/Politico story approached publication after months of off-and-on work, my editors sent photographer Whitney Curtis out with Clark to show him doing his work. In one scene she photographed, Clark chatted with four young men on the stoop of a north St. Louis home. Hours later, three of the four got shot. They called Clark first, instead of the police, and he ended up driving them to a hospital after calling police himself. All three survived. But, five days later, one of the four young men, DeAndre Kelley, got shot again with one of his high school friends, the friend’s mother, and a 10-year-old boy. All four died.

We learned of this a week before publication. I scrambled to talk to Clark and Curtis to add to the ending of the story, and to explain how one snapshot in time can serve as a disturbing reminder of the urgency of the work that people like Clark do.

Our images of crime victims

Back in December, I said I would remain deliberately vague for now about my book project. That’s still the case, but I’ll drop a little hint about what’s on my mind by talking about the lecture I’ll give today.

I’m honored to be invited back to the Syracuse University College of Law and to a class I helped create about 10 years ago on law, politics and media. It’s an outgrowth of a program that combines the strengths of SU’s journalism, public affairs, and law schools. And under the direction of my former colleagues it excels at exploring the issues at the intersection of these powerful forces.

My talk builds on the work that I did on a series about the ways in which we fail crime victims with tough-on-crime policies. I will look at how news coverage of crime distorts our views of the realities of violence and its victims — who they usually are (namely, poor people of color, not the more famous victims we see in the news advocating harsher laws) and what they really need (crime prevention and healing services, not just a focus on how much to punish offenders). News is defined by what’s unusual, and so we are fed a diet of scary aberrations. That influences public opinion and policy aimed at preventing less likely crimes and ignores the most common forms of  violence and their victims.

I’m not entirely pessimistic. I’ll talk about the solutions-journalism approach that informs the surplus of quality journalism these days on criminal-justice policy. But myths, which often start with news coverage, still dominate much of our thinking. For proof of that, we need to look no further than President Trump’s emphasis on crimes committed by immigrants, which runs directly counter to the facts about that population’s propensity to commit crime.

I’m not saying yet there’s definitely a book to be written on this topic — that’s still in the talking and preliminary-research stages — but stay tuned.

Justice reinvestment resources

The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice sponsors the H.F. Guggenheim Annual Symposium on Crime in America, a who’s who of crime-policy researchers and practitioners and the journalists who cover criminal justice.

At this year’s symposium, I am moderating a panel on sentencing policy, specifically justice reinvestment — various efforts around the country to scale back incarceration and use the savings to prevent crime.

During the panel, I will point people to this post for links to resources on these policies and programs:

Among the critics of the justice-reinvestment approach, one of the most trenchant can be found in Marie Gottschalk’s book Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics.

An update on my work

Since the end of my Soros Justice Fellowship in 2015, I have hoped and planned to continue focusing on how we respond to crime victims. Throughout much of 2016 I worked on a variety of assignments, all concerning criminal justice policy, but I realized this fall that unless I set aside that work temporarily, I would never find the time to focus on a book proposal. So that is what I have done since October.

I have been reporting on what I see as the core narrative in a book that explores urban violence, its victims, and our policies to help those victims and reduce the violence. I will continue that work in 2017 — with, I hope, a book contract at some point, so that I can afford to devote more months to the book’s reporting and eventually writing.

I am being deliberately vague at this point. Once I am sure of the direction this is taking, I plan to share glimpses of the work in progress. Stay tuned.

 

Sandy Hook’s hidden story

TraceLaw and news nerd that I am, I find great satisfaction in discovering new angles to litigation stories that others have missed. Last February, I did that for The Trace in a preview of the coming fight over the legal claims made by the families of the Sandy Hook mass shooting victims. Now that the judge has ruled, I revisited the topic with this analysis, published today.

The remarkable thing to me is that no news reports that I saw ever homed in on the same issue that drew my attention. That’s probably because it’s hard to explain to a lay audience in terms that are both accurate and understandable. It’s just as hard for a layman like me to grasp it in the first place, but that’s the kind of challenge that first drew me to covering the law and that still excites me. As I said, I’m a big old nerd.

I won’t repeat what’s explained in both stories, but I will try to summarize what issue I’m talking about (this is yet another test of my explanatory abilities). The lawsuit filed by the victims’ families against the maker and sellers of the gun that Adam Lanza used, a Bushmaster AR-15 style rifle, faces the same obstacle that any case against the gun industry does, thanks to Congress’ passage in 2005 of a law granting broad legal immunity to the industry. The law allows some lawsuits that fit limited exceptions. All the coverage of the Sandy Hook case focused on just one of the exceptions claimed in this lawsuit — a claim that by marketing military-style weapons to civilians, the industry has committed “negligent entrustment,” which means giving a dangerous thing to someone who shouldn’t have it — but that was the more far-fetched of the two. The other one, which I focused on thanks to an article I ran across and then my conversation with its law-professor author, allows lawsuits that allege actions that violate laws concerning the sale of guns. How the Sandy Hook plaintiffs’ lawyers made that argument, and how the judge reacted to it, were the untold story about this lawsuit.

Who cares? Well, I submit anyone who cares about this lawsuit or about the ongoing debate to repeal the immunity law should care, because the argument I wrote about came closer to keeping the Sandy Hook case alive than the negligent entrustment claim. Closer, but not close enough, as the judge has now narrowly but decisively agreed to throw the case out.

I’m glad The Trace provided me with a platform to tell that story, nerdy though it may have been.

Caught in the middle

tap_new_logo6I’ve written in the past about a scenario I find important and intriguing: cities where police departments are led by relatively progressive, reform-friendly chiefs who find themselves caught between protesters and their own departments’ history and rank-and-file officers. That was the case when I wrote about New York City and Minneapolis. And it’s the case in my latest story, about Charlotte, North Carolina.

I wrote for The American Prospect’s website (a new client) about the state of police reform in Charlotte in the wake of the fatal shooting last week of Keith Lamont Scott. In particular, I address the various approaches to improving police training and community relations, and why police reform will continue to be such a difficult chore even in places where the department ostensibly wants to improve.

Some people like the clarity of positions at either pole. I’m inclined to think the truth can always be found in the gray areas between.

A red state struggles with reform

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-1-42-22-pmWhat constitutes real criminal-justice reform?

Advocates have warned for years that it’s a mistake to limit sentencing reforms to nonviolent drug offenses. Marie Gottschalk explores this in depth in a penetrating critique of the reform movement in Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, where she talks about the policies aimed only at “non, non, nons” (nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual offenses).

In fact, dividing the criminal world into violent and nonviolent is a “demonstrably false” construct to begin with, as Katherine Beckett argued in this recent American Prospect article, in part because drug offenders often have committed violence, while violent offenders are among the least likely to commit new offenses.

And yet public opinion favors reducing our over-reliance on prisons — but not for the majority of prisoners who are serving long sentences for violence and other serious offenses. Perhaps that’s because the public believes, against all evidence, that crime remains in a perpetual upward spiral (actually, and despite alarming spikes in some cities’ violent crime recently, crime of all types has fallen dramatically for the past 20-plus years).

In my latest article, written for TakePart, I look at the ups and downs of criminal-justice reform in a deep-red state, Oklahoma, and ask whether its efforts are doomed to irrelevance. The state can barely make progress toward the most minimal drug-offense reforms, much less toward reforms that might put a bigger dent in a system that practically everyone involved agrees is unaffordable, ineffective, and overly punitive.

The story is about more than just Oklahoma. It’s a look at justice reinvestment, a nonpartisan approach to reducing mass incarceration through policies aimed at achieving lower crime and lower imprisonment. Researchers in dozens of states have found savings in reducing the use of prisons, and advised plowing those savings into crime prevention programs. Conservatives from groups like Right on Crime support such efforts. For some on the left, that’s enough reason to oppose it, or at least look at it very skeptically. But, like many other red states that have gone before it, Oklahoma is trying to take these baby steps before making bolder moves. The question is whether success, as they define it, will be enough.

The timing of this assessment of Oklahoma’s fitful progress coincidentally comes as Congress admits it is too divided to take up the modest reforms — focused mainly on nonviolent drug offenses — that it has wrestled with, and watered down in efforts at compromise, for the past couple of years.

My story appears in a package of stories on criminal justice titled “Violence and Redemption,” with stories on rehabilitation programs for people who committed violent offenses (by Rebecca McCray), forgiveness and victim-offender dialog (by Jessica Pishko), and several others as part of TakePart’s “Big Issues” series, an ambitious project using longform journalism to explore … yes, big issues. This was my second story for TakePart, which is part of the documentary and film production company Participant Media. Last December I wrote about police reform, with a look at what’s happening in Minneapolis. I appreciate this publication’s dedication to telling in-depth stories about criminal justice, as part of its larger agenda promoting social awareness. What my editors and I liked about both stories is that they defied easy answers. They are, instead, about the struggle to address crime in constructive ways — and in ways that move beyond the broken systems of the past.

Prison buildup: the documentary

crimereportThe Crime Report today published my Q&A with Regan Hines, director of a new documentary on the massive expansion of America’s prison population. The film, Incarcerating US, traces the history of sentencing policy since the 1970s, laying most of the blame for that on war-on-drugs policies like mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

In my interview, I challenge Hines’ thesis, ask why he told the story the way he does, and question why the film is more a work of advocacy than journalism. But don’t let my skepticism suggest that I disliked the film. To the contrary, I thought it was deeply affecting and powerful, especially scenes in which inmates speak to their children through a camera provided by a service that delivers video messages home.

Starting today, Incarcerating US is available for downloads and is showing in select theaters in the coming months (the film’s website has the details). Here’s the trailer:

The freelancing life

My friend and former colleague Brian Moritz invited me to appear on his podcast, The Other 51, to talk about freelance journalism. Here’s the link.

We talked about the challenges, frustrations, and satisfaction of doing the kind of work I do without the stability of a steady paycheck. And we did it while sipping a delicious microbrew on the shore of Canandaigua Lake, undercutting some of my woe-is-me chatter. Enjoy.

A different Ferguson effect

We journalists like to talk about the distinction between a topic and a story. The topic of my latest story, in this Sunday’s New York Times business section, is the role employers can play in hiring more former prisoners for good jobs after their release. I developed that topic from chatter I heard in the criminal-justice policy world and from asking a question, after reading umpteen stories about the desperate need to boost employment numbers as a prisoner-reentry strategy. The question: What’s in it for employers?

Once I knew that was the topic I wanted to write about, I needed to find an example of a place where the problem is being tackled in a creative, market-driven way. What drew me to St. Louis was the merits of the program I focus on. It is, all my sources agreed, the most ambitious and effective of its kind.

But its location makes for an irony. It’s not one that I explored in the story, but that’s what blogs are for. That this program blossomed in the shadow of Ferguson, Missouri, speaks to a more complicated narrative about that region’s approach to crime than the one we’ve heard again and again after the death of Michael Brown.

I’m not saying the Brown protests lack authenticity. Whatever the interpretation of the facts surrounding Brown’s death, it’s clear that the systems of justice in Ferguson and St. Louis County were exposed as severely unfair and racist in multiple state and federal probes.

And I’m not saying that the program I wrote about is a response to the Ferguson controversy. In fact, it started in 2002, long before the protests in the St. Louis area.

But it’s an example of how the common outside view of a place can obscure contradictions. Though in the story I focus on the business rationale for this program, what’s just as interesting to me is that the people running it are motivated to change lives for the better. Their primary job is to enforce conditions of supervision once someone gets out of prison. But, to do that job, they choose to focus on helping those people adjust and creating conditions that make it more likely for them to succeed.

The upshot of the story is how difficult and detailed such attempts can be. But the underlying message is just as important: Someone in a position of power is trying, on a fairly grand scale.

A writer and editor on law, crime, and business