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.
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.
I got word this week that Marion “Marvin” Berry has died in prison at age 44. Berry was incarcerated for 29 years and five months, since the age of 15, when he and another 15-year-old, Gary Brown, were arrested on charges of kidnapping, raping, and killing 26-year-old Cathy O’Daniel.
I wrote about the case in the first installment of my series for Slate on crime victims. In that story, I focused on O’Daniel’s mother Linda White and her brand of radical forgiveness, which she has shown toward Berry’s co-defendant, Gary Brown.
Berry never experienced the kind of turnaround and redemption that Brown earned for himself. Instead, his years in Texas prisons were marked by trouble. Just five years into his 55-year sentence, he got another 12 1/2 years tacked on for possession of a homemade knife. After more fights with other prisoners and guards, and incidents of self-mutilation, Berry’s minimum sentence stood at 64 years. If all went well — and, with Berry, it never did — he was due to be released in 2051.
A Texas prison spokesman, Jason Clark, confirmed to me in an email today that Berry died at the Bill Clements Unit in Amarillo, a prison that houses prisoners in solitary confinement or requiring mental health care. Clark wrote:
On March 27, 2016, Berry was found unresponsive in his cell. Staff began life saving measures as he was taken to unit medical. EMS arrived on scene and unit medical briefed them on the situation. A physician later arrived and pronounced the offender deceased at 8:37 pm. The preliminary cause of death was natural causes.
White was the first to let me know of Berry’s death, when I coincidentally reached out to say hi and to ask if she’s heard lately from Brown. Texas’ victim-notification policies had served their purpose, and she received a letter promptly giving her the news. Speaking of Berry, White wrote in an email, “His was a very sad life, to say the least.”
As for Brown, he has remained out of touch with White, which was how I ended the story when it was published last June. When I arranged a meeting between White and Brown, and for months afterward, Brown was doing all he could to fulfill his promise to White to live a law-abiding, productive life after his release from prison. I expect and hope that is still the case. No matter what, he’s done far more than his partner in crime to turn bad into good and to show that some lives can be redeemed.
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.
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.
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.
One of the bright spots in the journalism business has been the growth of digital-only publications that pay writers reasonably well — unlike so many that pay insultingly low rates (and pretty much get what they pay for). Some of these quality outfits are nonprofits by design, others by circumstances, and some even make money. They have taken up some of the slack left by shrinking print publication budgets.
One quality nonprofit I have been happy to write for is The Trace, which covers gun policy with intelligent original reporting and that pays its freelance writers enough to make it worthwhile to take on challenging topics such as these. On my “recent work” page, I link to two stories I wrote for The Trace last September on “stand your ground” laws. Now I have a new story up on the site, this time on the Newtown victims’ families’ lawsuit against the manufacturer and sellers of Adam Lanza’s preferred weapon, the Bushmaster AR-15. The issues in the lawsuit focus on the provisions of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), the federal law granting immunity — with some exceptions — to the gun industry from lawsuits over injury and death from gun violence. This is the first in what my editor and I plan to be a regular string of stories on a variety of gun-law topics.
That’s all on the positive side of the ledger: a reporting challenge, an important policy matter, a potentially landmark case, and more stories to come. The negative, though, is that when working for anyone — nonprofits or for-profits — a writer must be aware of a publisher’s agenda and of its inherent biases. Ideally, the agenda is the same as mine as a journalist: to tell important stories that are true to the facts. That, indeed, has been my experience with The Trace, where my editor doesn’t expect or want stories to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. In fact, he bends over backward to avoid the appearance that a story favors one side or the other. The appearance of bias, however, is inevitable, given that some of The Trace’s startup funding came from Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. Everytown is, in turn, funded in large part by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and both he and Everytown advocate tougher gun regulations. It’s inevitable, then, that on this hopelessly contentious issue, some will see any work appearing at The Trace as hack journalism. At the very least, it makes it harder to get some calls returned.
I can’t help that. I can only do my job with integrity, letting the facts lead me to honest conclusions, or simply telling factual stories that readers can then use to form their own conclusions. I look forward to writing more for The Trace in coming months — and hoping that my stories speak for themselves.
Since June, my series at Slate on crime victims has told the stories of victims and approaches to criminal justice that counter popular myths about who victims are and what they need. Three of the first five stories in particular (Parts 1, 2, and 5) pointed to a philosophy called restorative justice as the counterweight to traditional tough-on-crime policies that have given us excessive imprisonment, counterproductive policing tactics, and a punitive mentality underlying all of those systemic problems.
So why isn’t restorative justice the solution to all that ails our criminal justice system? The last in the series, which was published today, asks that question and examines why restorative justice — which focuses on what victims and communities need to heal from and prevent crime, rather than just on how to punish wrongdoing — has failed so far to fulfill the promise that its believers see in it as a powerful alternative.
Restorative-justice advocates no doubt will object to my premise, as their mission is to press for social change by pointing to all the good that restorative justice programs have accomplished already. My own series pointed out such successes, and the virtues of taking this healing, alternative approach. But as a journalist, my job is to step back and measure its impact. The conclusion I came away with was that restorative justice remains marginalized, rarely embraced by the public or policymakers, and rarely discussed in our current criminal-justice reform debate.
To show why that it is the case, I visited one of the first and most ambitious attempts to embed a restorative approach in a countywide justice system. The program in Genesee County, in western New York state, peaked early and its reforms have not proved long-lasting. The current state of affairs at a program called Genesee Justice is not all bad. As I say in the story, victims in this county enjoy a level of state-provided care that’s rare in America. But the founders’ dream, to remake justice in this county permanently and radically, is all but gone. By telling the story of how it grew and shrank, I hope to shed light on the broader restorative-justice movement and its place in American justice.
When an editor from TakePart asked me to write about policing reform using Minneapolis as the example, I quickly determined that the chosen location made perfect sense as a window into a topic I’ve written about before. The more I learned through my reporting, including a week I spent there, Minneapolis and its small neighbor, Columbia Heights, Minnesota, struck me as ideal showcases of the issues that make policing such a fraught topic these days — even though the region hadn’t joined the list of cities known nationally for their problems.
And then that changed. Just as my editor and I were finishing the story, Minneapolis police shot and killed Jamar Clark, touching off tense protests that drew national attention when white supremacists shot and wounded five Black Lives Matter protesters outside a Minneapolis police station.
The end result, published today, puts the reaction to Clark’s death in the context of years of clashes between police and citizens. Despite a reform-minded administration and some positive changes of late, Minneapolis remains a divided city, a division that often defies logic to outsiders who never experience the kind of policing that inner-city people of color typically do. To them, the controversies over killings by police boil down to bad behavior and anti-cop lawlessness. That’s the kind of perspective you gain when you live in comfort and safety and get only the good kind of policing.
Alongside the story of Minneapolis, I tell the story of Columbia Heights, where a forward-thinking chief has led his department through a radical transformation that has cut crime while improving relations at the same time. They do it by looking for people to help instead of looking for people to arrest — the essence of the community-oriented policing ethos that my story examines. And the essence of what police reformers, inside and outside the policing profession, mean when they talk about the hard work that’s needed to restore and maintain a community’s trust in its police. I hope this story contributes to people’s understanding of what that debate is about.
Over on my Facebook page this week, I’ve been posting a series of updates on my latest project, a feature story on policing controversies and solutions. I spent the week in and around Minneapolis, watching one police department as it engaged with its community in constructive ways — and another as it tries to do the same, but remains dogged by its long history of heavy-handed, brutal tactics.
At the heart of this story, which will be published in December, is the tension between effective crime control and the trust police must earn among the law-abiding majority in high-crime neighborhood. It’s the loss of that trust that made itself heard loud and clear the past couple of years, from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore and beyond. Throughout these controversies are longstanding racial tensions and the long history of discriminatory law enforcement throughout this country. In Minneapolis, there’s an added layer of complexity with the region’s recent influx of Muslims, many from Somalia.
The problems have solutions, which is what I will focus my story on. To show glimpses of this work in progress, I posted a number of times as I reported the story, on Monday, Tuesday, twice on Wednesday (here and here), and at the conclusion of the trip. The posts don’t go into great detail about the story or my thinking — I’m still developing the facts and my conclusions as I report through next week — but I share these snippets as a way of showing the nature of this kind of reporting work and the issues I’m interested in.