Watchdog journalism wins criminal-justice reporting awards

What topics got aired in stories winning or placing in the just-announced John Jay College/Harry Frank Guggenheim 2012 Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Awards?

  • The FBI’s use of informants in investigations of the Muslim community (Trevor Aaronson of Mother Jones magazine).
  • Police discipline (Gina Barton of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).
  • Sex and rape in women’s prisons (Kelly Virella of City Limits Investigates).
  • Military justice (Marisa Taylor and Michael Doyle of McClatchy Newspapers).

Congrats to the winners. To see daily examples of this sort of reporting, subscribe to the daily digest produced by the same folks who give out these awards: Ted Gest’s Crime and Justice News. 

When is enough prison time enough?

Tom Robbins’ cover story in this coming Sunday’s Times Magazine confronts what, to me, is the most important and confounding question about criminal justice: the search for a just prison sentence. His narrative about Judith Clark, one of the militant leftists in the deadly Brink’s robbery of 1981 in Rockland County, N.Y., asks whether Clark, 30 years into a 75-year sentence, has earned clemency by her behavior in prison, and whether her sentence was disproportionately long.

Clark drove a getaway car in the robbery that left two police officers and two security guards shot, three of them fatally. Even the crime’s mastermind received a lighter sentence, and most of the conspirators are now free. Robbins, who remarkably knew Clark in high school and visited her many times in prison since 2006, traces Clark’s journey into radicalism and rage, and then to repentance and maturity. The writer implicitly but clearly answers “yes”  to his story’s main question: “Could anyone so stubborn and unrepentant really change?” But he doesn’t beat us over the head with his conclusion, and gives sensitive and fair exposure to the lasting damage Clark and her gang caused.

Does a debate as well-worn as this — punishment vs. rehabilitation; vengeance vs. forgiveness — serve any purpose? No doubt it does, judging from the voluminous and thoughtful reader comments already attached to this story — and based on our collective failure to come to consensus on such a fundamental issue.

Crime rates merit more than a shrug

We journalists generally do a terrible job of showing the public the truth about crime: its risks, causes, and remedies. So I guess I should be gratified to see this pair of stories recently in the LA Times: the first on the local crime rate’s stubborn refusal to shoot back up, despite a poor economy; the second asking what effects the steep, long-term decline in crime has on citizens’ quality of life. While both articles touch on important questions about what’s causing crime to drop and how increased public safety will change our lives, they’re both so cursory that I almost wonder if they were worth the bother. The first article, for example, blows past profound, fundamental issues in this breezy pair of grafs:

Researchers and police have long butted heads trying to make sense of what factors influence crime rates. Police argue that their work is the linchpin, while academics look for larger societal explanations.

The declines of the last several years, experts say, are not easily explained by one factor and are almost certainly the result of several developments and issues combined. More effective crime-fighting strategies; strict sentencing laws that, until recently, increased the number of people in prison; demographic shifts; and sociological influences are likely factors.

The second sees the challenge to us scribes, to tackle these topics, but then veers off into valid but tangential territory as its chosen focus:

The phenomenon ought to be scrutinized. We need to know what mix of forces has conspired to drive crime down, so we can — in an era of shrinking resources — plan and spend wisely to keep this going.

We also have to ask ourselves: What will this transformation mean?

What will we do with all this safety in a city known not so long ago as the capital of drive-by shootings?

One newspaper in one week’s span can’t possibly tackle massive social issues in a comprehensive way. Compelling storytelling requires that we find ways to make big ideas and questions digestible in one sitting. Still, I can’t help but wonder why quality newspapers and magazines don’t ask — and try to answer — these questions constantly. Too many of our fellow citizens are convinced, based on a steady diet of scare stories and political demagoguery, that crime rages out of control. It’s our job to show the reality and use it to question criminal-justice policies and priorities. Maybe the Times and others will continue pulling at the loose threads these stories identify. I wish I could believe that.

Texas Monthly’s nose for injustice

When I covered cops and courts for daily newspapers, I viewed magazine writers with disdain. We in-the-trenches types dug up facts and broke stories incrementally. Sure, we could churn out the occasional Big Sunday Story, with its mind-numbing length and mound of facts (often produced in the off-hours when another daily deadline wasn’t looming). After we had collected the evidence, the fancy-pants magazine writers would swoop in, steal our work, and act as though they had done all that original reporting themselves. Mostly, I thought, it was just pretty words; a clip job (a story compiled from others’ news clips).

I’ve long since come to treasure good magazine narratives about crime. No matter how original — and, of course, the more the better — they synthesize and explain in ways that are far more compelling than the typical news story. Many magazines do it well, including some of my favorites: The New Yorker, GQ, Rolling Stone, New York, Esquire, Vanity Fair. All it takes is a glance at Byliner’s crime-story archive to confirm the vibrancy of the genre. Even the Times Magazine, indifferent for so long to crime stories, is finally giving them their narrative due. But none can equal Texas Monthly for its sheer commitment to the form.

I was privileged to serve as a judge in the reporting category for the 2010 City and Regional Magazine Association awards, when Texas Monthly took three of five finalist slots (and won, for Michael Hall’s “Across the Line,” a dissection of an out-of-control sex-crime prosecution). Last year, Pamela Colloff was a National Magazine Award finalist for the two-part series (“Innocence Lost” and “Innocence Found”) on a wrongful conviction that contributed to the state’s decision to free Anthony Graves after 18 years.

Now Colloff has done it again. In “Hannah and Andrew,” in the magazine’s January issue, she presents as clear an example as I have found of the difference between fact and assumption — the true measure of reporting in the public interest. Anger over a child’s death fueled a presumption of guilt, but thanks to a meticulous and even-handed examination of the evidence, Colloff shows convincingly that a foster mother’s life-without-parole sentence is unjustified and unjust. Now if only the state’s notoriously stubborn prosecutors and judiciary would listen — and remember that criminal justice, like Texas Monthly‘s journalism, should be about a search for truth rather than about winning or blind vengeance.

New site for a new year

My new year’s resolution is to reboot my journalism career — the third or fourth chapter, depending on how you count. So I thought it only fitting that I start a new site, and this blog, to get things started right.

Nearly eight years ago, I left New York, and my job managing the day-to-day of a monthly magazine, to teach journalism and to return to my roots in reporting and writing about the law. Rather soon after making this move, I helped land a Carnegie Journalism Initiative grant. The resulting programs sucked up most of my spare time until summer 2009. Since then I’ve done some magazine pieces of the sort I want to focus on, but not nearly as many as I’d hoped. So when spring semester classes in May 2012 end, I will double down on the bet I made with myself when I left The American Lawyer in 2004 — a gamble that I still have the skills and passion to tell hard-to-get stories about how the law really works, about why crime happens, and about how it affects us all.

I like teaching, but I love reporting and writing. So after all these years of taking career detours and worrying about silly things like “income” and “health insurance” and “stability” and “kids’ tuition,” I’ll be back where I started in journalism — with, I hope, a little more experience and insight.

As I explain a bit more on the About page, I’ll use this blog to post updates on my work in progress, to spotlight issues I’m following and hoping to write about, and to point to examples of the long-form narrative writing on the law and crime that I admire.

A writer and editor on law, crime, and business