Category Archives: Crime policy

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.

 

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.

Policing that works

Accompanying the relentless news of gun violence is an equally relentless set of debates about how we should respond. More gun control. Tougher policing and sentencing. Less policing. Better policing. Better families. More drug treatment and job training. End poverty and racism. Often, feeding those opinions and conclusions are the latest experiments that prove the point we want to make or provide a straw to grasp for: a city that has momentarily solved its violence problem with a particular tactic; a study of one place and one approach that seems to work; a place where a hated tactic seems to backfire.

What’s lacking from this anecdote-driven conversation is solid evidence of what actually works, not just in this place or that, but overall. In my latest story for The Trace (published also by The Crime Report), I look at the results of decades’ worth of accumulated evidence on what works in policing strategies to reduce gun violence. The result is a sort of scorecard on types of strategies that have amassed the strongest records of results.

The conclusions contradict many common assumptions about what should be done. More broadly, they run counter to a persistent pessimism that has dominated this field of study for about 40 years. Now, instead of a “nothing works” mentality, we have clear guidance on certain approaches that clearly do work — not because they worked once or twice, or recently, but because they have been subjected to scores of rigorous tests, and the research I cite has found patterns of effectiveness by combining studies’ results. So, problem solved? Obviously not. There’s a long history of policymakers and the public ignoring such findings. Even if they paid close attention, there’s little certainty even in these scientifically sound conclusions. After all, we’re talking about enormously complex social problems and circumstances that vary greatly and change constantly.

But the report card that I developed for The Trace — with an accompanying Q&A I did with one of the leading researchers, David Weisburd — goes a long way toward providing clarity about which policing approaches prove most promising to reduce gun violence.

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.

Another look at a hometown tragedy

Not all of my stories for The Trace touch on my current main reporting interest in crime victims. But my latest does. And they’re victims whose story I know well from past articles I’ve written, and from an even more personal connection: the crime took place in my hometown of Webster, New York, involving people whose social circles intersect with my friends and family.

The December 24, 2012, ambush of volunteer firefighters in a neighborhood on the Lake Ontario shore killed two (Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka) and seriously wounded two others (Ted Scardino and Joe Hofstetter). Three years ago, when I was working on what I hoped would be a book about the crime — I have since put that project on hold, I hope not forever — I wrote two stories about the crime’s aftermath. One, a cover story in Pacific Standard, looked at  the psychological growth that can be sparked by the trauma of such an event. The other, in the magazine where I once worked as an editor, The American Lawyer, told of Scardino’s efforts to press for tougher federal laws on straw purchases of weapons.

Straw purchases — where someone who can pass a background check illegally supplies weapons to someone barred from buying a gun — once again are the subject of my new story for The Trace. Using the lawsuit that the victims and their families brought against Gander Mountain, the retailer that sold the guns that ended up in the Webster killer’s hands, I examine a tactic used by plaintiffs’ lawyers to try to win these cases. The tactic: comparing a retailer’s behavior to industry standards promoted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation to show whether a gun seller took enough care to prevent a straw purchase.

When Chiapperini vs. Gander Mountain was filed on the victims’ behalf by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the social-media peanut gallery criticized the victims for trying to cash in on their tragedy, or simply for looking in the wrong place to lay blame. If the firefighters’ and families’ allegations prove correct about what Gander Mountain clerks did and didn’t do, then the plaintiffs in this lawsuit will convincingly win that argument — not that everyone can be convinced to change their mind when guns are the subject.

The victims said when they filed the suit that they want this to bring about reforms, and to help other people. That’s a common impulse when tragedy strikes. I’ll continue to follow this case to see if the victims ever reach their goal.

Dick Heller, sore winner

In my previous story for The Trace, about Ted Cruz’s record as a gun-rights lawyer, I brushed up on my history of the most important Second Amendment case in history, D.C. v. Heller. In that story, the case was just one of several I looked at. Now I’ve taken a deeper dive into the 2008 case, with this newly published profile of Dick Heller himself.

This story is what’s known in the business as a write-around. That means the subject of the story wouldn’t talk to me. Rather than let him have veto power over the story, I forged ahead, gleaning his background and views from books, articles, and my own interviews with others who have worked for or against him.

The result is, I hope, a fair portrait of an important historical figure whose controversial politics and colorful personal backstory bring to light aspects of the Heller case — a case that’s now very much back in the news, with the battle on over replacing Justice Antonin Scalia, the Heller majority opinion author.

My central conclusion: Heller’s politics, combined with his frustration over D.C.’s continued efforts to regulate guns, pushed him toward the absolutist end of the gun-rights spectrum — and away from the case that bears his name.

One aspect of the story I didn’t get a chance to explore this time are the arguments over whether Heller might be overturned if a Democratically appointed justice replaces Scalia, and if so, what difference that would make. Here’s one take on that. I hope to revisit that topic in a later story with views from all sides.

Fact-checking Ted Cruz’s gun-law record

I spent an 11-year chunk of my career in Texas. But I left that state when Ted Cruz was still in law school. So I have not been there to watch his political rise first hand. Still, I’ve remained interested in the place and visited multiple times to report on stories there. And, like everyone, I can’t take my eyes off this year’s presidential campaign.

So I was glad to get an assignment from The Trace on Ted Cruz’s record as a lawyer handling gun-rights cases. He has made that work a central point in his campaign, but as my new story on that record explains, he’s inflated his role in key cases while skipping past some inconvenient details about compromise positions that he no longer seems to hold.

I plan to write more for The Trace about the legal battles over gun safety and regulations, past and present. Reporting on this story (and on my previous one, about the federal law giving the gun industry immunity from civil lawsuits) has given me a quick refresher course in that world. I look forward to continuing my education and finding new stories to tell about how legal policy and litigation is shaping gun-rights battles today.