Tag Archives: The Crime Report

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:

Glass half-full

In the first two parts of a three-part New York Review of Books series on the quality of journalism online, Michael Massing has amassed a thoughtful collection of reported anecdotes that serves as an unusually detailed snapshot of the current state of the industry. Part one evaluates the quality of first-generation online journalism and declares it kind of “meh.” Part two asks how digital startups of more recent vintage have fared. His verdict: disappointing and uneven, with such heralded innovations as longform narratives “stillborn.” (Massing says his third part will appear later this year.)

While I appreciate Massing’s focus on editorial quality instead of the usual hand-wringing about the commercial prospects of online publishing, I see his take on things as entirely too pessimistic — at least when it concerns the criminal-justice journalism that I pay close attention to.

I’m not a preternaturally positive guy, especially on the topic of quality journalism. After all, consider: a decimated business model in traditional publishing; stagnant wages and free-falling freelance rates; the ascendance of the most vapid forms of journalism as product-promoting PR, celebrity-celebrating fluff, and listicle-churning clickbait. I regularly see friends and former colleagues laid off, fellow freelancers abandoning journalism for gigs as sponsored-content writers, and newsroom morale rotting in a stew of idiotic corporate Dilbert-itis and quality-killing staffing losses. In crime news specifically, it’s far easier to find exploitative, mindless scare stories aimed at fueling rage and resentment than to see stories deeply reported and emotionally powerful that offer solutions and understanding.

But here are some snapshots of my own that show why developments in the past year or two justify optimism:

SO MUCH GOOD STUFF

Here’s last week’s City and Regional Magazine Awards‘ crime-heavy winners list. That’s not surprising, considering what any major journalism awards list looks like year after year. There is such a surfeit of deeply reported, meaningful journalism and so many ways to find it — from curated sites and feeds, and from daily newsletters like those from The Marshall Project and The Crime Report — that it’s impossible to keep up with it all. And equally impossible to take seriously the frequently made claim that “the media” (as if it’s just one, monolithic thing) don’t care about substance.

I recently abandoned my unpaid work in keeping my own list of standout stories, simply because the volume overwhelmed me and was seriously cutting into my productive time to earn a living doing this work instead of just talking about it. (I still post links to such stories several times a day on my social-media feeds, though I no longer feel obligated to read and critique more than I can fit into my schedule.)

Last week’s conference of Investigative Reporters & Editors drew about 1,800 journalists to several days of high-level seminars on producing public-interest, accountability journalism. Judging from my Twitter feed, the conference continues to grow and has lost none of its power as an inspirational gathering of the craft’s leading practitioners.

The point is: If you claim this kind of journalism is going away, then you’re just not looking for it.

SO MUCH FRESH TALENT

On Saturday night, one of my former students at Syracuse’s Newhouse School, Julie McMahon of the Syracuse Post-Standard, won AP New York state honors as young journalist of the year. She also won first places for beat reporting (she covers the cops beat) and for features. Here is her winning story, a powerful story about a gunshot victim’s recovery. In just her first few years as a pro, she has shown she has the brains, skills, and work ethic to carve out a significant role for herself in a business (both generally, and specifically at the Post-Standard) that has been declared all but dead.

She is hardly alone in that. Look, for example, at the winners and their work in the recently announced Livingston Awards, where important criminal-justice stories dominate.

SO MANY AMBITIOUS STARTUPS

Though The Marshall Project gets most of the attention, as the boldest crime-focused digital-journalism startup — and deservedly, as its stellar team consistently produces smart, deep storytelling on the most important policy topics — crime stories with true merit regularly sprout at such sites as The Intercept, Reveal, Vox, Yahoo News, Vice, The Atavist, TakePart, BuzzFeed, Colorlines, Matter, Texas Tribune (and many other regional digital-news outlets), podcasts such as Life of the Law and Criminal, and many others. Not to mention old-timers like Politico, Slate, and Alternet.

Will they all survive while sustaining the current output of ambitious journalism? Of course not. But think back just a few years, to a time when all we ever heard was naysaying about the potential for any seeds to sprout in the Web’s fallow soil. Here we are, awash in good stuff by new players, at traditional and digital-native operations alike, and by young and not-so-young journalists making a living at it.

Massing’s point is broader than my crime-specific take on the business. But, from what I see happening in the journalism of science, politics, sports, culture, and business, crime journalism is no outlier. Though the business models continue to struggle for footing, we’re creating the necessary precursor for any successful business and industry: a quality product that draws an audience and serves the public interest.

Inside the “guilt mill”

On the whiteboard in my office is the phrase “wrongful conv. #s.” It’s been there so long, I may have trouble erasing it. But now I should because it’s just been done so well by someone else.

At The Crime Report, David Krajicek has written this detailed, thoughtful report on one of the most important but least-examined questions in the literature of wrongful convictions: How many convictions do we get wrong among lesser felonies lacking DNA evidence?

The cases we read about so often are the tiny minority of convictions that get lawyers’ and journalists’ attention: convictions resulting in death sentences or long prison terms, usually for murders and rapes, where DNA evidence exists and tests prove we got the wrong guy. A question I’ve long hoped to explore, but let it sit on my growing to-do list, concerns the base of the pyramid. That’s what Krajicek focuses on.

Of course, no one can say with any reasonable certainty what the number is. By definition, these cases are hidden. But, besides reviewing the studies that make educated guesses (and looking at how the estimates get made, in this sidebar), Krajicek examines the factors that argue for or against the proposition that wrongful convictions for lesser crimes will exceed those we’re more familiar with.

Then he takes it an important next step, to look at why we make these mistakes. His suggested answer is the same as my hunch: It’s not just about prosecutor and police misconduct, though of course that is a factor. And it’s not just about the many other factors that can railroad innocent people, which Krajicek explores one by one. It’s about a system incapable of intelligently processing the heavy caseload we impose on it with a set of laws and resources that don’t line up. And beneath all other factors are our flawed judgments about human nature, which Krajicek’s sources explain in this key passage:

Lying almost certainly is a byproduct of the disillusionment that is pervasive among cops and others who work in criminal justice.

“The first thing you’re dealing with is cynicism,” says Christine Freeman, executive director of the Middle District of Alabama Federal Defender Program. “Everyone who works in courthouses has a deep cynicism about the clientele they are dealing with. There is an assumption that they must be guilty of something; if they didn’t do this, they probably did something else.”

This presumption of guilt is a billboard factor in a justice system “defined by error,” says Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization in Montgomery, Ala.

“We have this very simplified world view, where there are good guys and there are bad guys,” Stevenson says. “A victim is good. Someone accused of committing a crime is bad. The people trying to punish him are good. The people trying to defend him are bad.”

“Part of this us-vs.-them dynamic is that we start to see accused criminals not as individuals but as entities, in a sense,” says Sara Sun Beale, a Duke University law professor who teaches criminal justice policy. “They are not really people. They are merely perps.”

During her long career as a public defender, Freeman says, she has learned that her peers are as susceptible to jading as cops and prosecutors.

“The thing that we’re all afraid of is that we’ve got an innocent client and our own cynicism keeps us from seeing that—from turning over that last rock that might prove it,” she says.

Like jokes about prison rape, ridiculing notions of prisoners’ innocence has long served as a punch line: “Because they’re all innocent, right?” It’s not so funny, though, when we take the time to look at evidence that far too many are indeed innocent. We just lack the will and the means to know which ones. For all of the policy prescriptions we might and ought to make, the one thing we all can do to begin to address, if not cure, this problem starts very simply: Caring. Stories like Krajicek’s lead more down that path.

Crime journalism worth every penny

Since The Marshall Project‘s highly publicized launch last year, I’ve watched The Crime Report — a predecessor dedicated to much of the same coverage of criminal justice news — with some questions in mind. How it might respond? Would it wither in the face of a slick upstart? Or just seem redundant?

In fact, The Crime Report has responded to the competition with more original reporting on top of its already excellent aggregation of quality crime and justice-reform news. Of course there’s overlap in the aggregation with what TMP does so well, too. But not enough that I find myself without fresh links to click at noon when TCR’s daily email arrives hours after TMP’s. I rely on both sites, more than anything else in my RSS and social-media feeds, to inform my work and tip me to the sorts of crime narratives that I spotlight on this blog and in my own feeds.

This week I got my renewal notice to re-up for a year of The Crime Report. Its metered access provides nonsubscribers access to just five articles, while subscribers get everything, including subject-matter archives. There is no debate. It costs money to employ qualified, experienced editors and reporters. TMP does not charge, at least not yet, but it asks for donations (and I made one last year comparable to the $50 annual subscription cost of TCR). We are lucky to have not one but two ambitious nonprofits dedicated to creating and tracking quality journalism on criminal justice. And those of us who rely on their work should pay for the privilege.

Drink from the criminal-justice firehose: 20 blogs that matter

This is a blog about the journalists writing about crime and criminal justice reform. So, rather than tweet out an answer to The Marshall Project’s question seeking names of “favorite bloggers on criminal justice issues,” I’ll post my answer here with a few caveats.

Following this issue requires the proverbial exercise in drinking from a firehose. I’m trying to be selective, but keep in mind I could generate a list of nearly this quality with another 20 bloggers/writers.

My bias is toward original reporting, so while my list isn’t exclusively focused there, it’s never far from the center of my attention. Another asterisk on my answers: What exactly is a blogger anymore? Now that many news sites adopt a blog format, the genre has lost much of its original meaning — a good thing, in my view, as the technology isn’t what matters. There are journalists, policy analysts and advocates, academics, and interested bystanders all contributing something to the conversation. When that “something” is original, informed, deeply researched or reported, and written well, then by definition it matters. And, while I care at least as much about reported narratives that illustrate the realities of crime and reform, I’ll stick to the assignment at hand by focusing on writing that more closely resembles blog commentary and analysis.

So enough with the throat-clearing. Here’s my list of bloggers (whatever that means) I follow because of what and how they write about criminal justice issues:

The Crime Report. I’ve said it before. But, until The Marshall Project delivers on its promise to build a hub for reporting on criminal justice reform, this news aggregator and producer of original reports — affiliated with the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice — is the best show in town.

Andrew Cohen is in so many places at once — CBS, The Atlantic, The Week, and more — that the only surefire way to keep tabs on him is via his Twitter feed. Informed by both a strong pro-reform point of view but also by original reporting, his commentary and reports are as provocative and informative as they are voluminous. The quality of his reports, considering the volume, is simply breathtaking. He tosses off stories like this one two days ago so routinely that I think he’s redefined my full-time job as “reading Andrew Cohen.”

Radley Balko’s The Watch, hosted by the Washington Post, keys off his book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, but it’s broader on the issues than that. Take his latest post, a detailed, research-filled rebuttal to law-savvy editorial writer Charles Lane’s challenge of his views on drug legalization.

Sentencing-law expert Doug Berman’s Sentencing Law & Policy, and his newer blog on marijuana policy, keep me up on research and news. The comments on SL&P are worth reading, too.

Pacific Standard magazine, which produces a robust menu of original content online as well as what’s in print, regularly calls attention to new ideas in the research world. Here are its posts on crime.

Justin Peters’ Crime blog at Slate is on hiatus while he writes a book about Internet activist Aaron Swartz, but it’s worth waiting for its return. Less crime-centric, but well worth a read when they focus on it (and even when they don’t), are Dahlia Lithwick, Emily Bazelon, and their guest writers for Slate’s Jurisprudence column.

If there is a purer expression of push-back to the reform movement than Crime and Consequences, I haven’t seen it. Tough-on-crime, pro-prosecution advocates Bill Otis and Kent Scheidegger regularly counter the enthusiasm of their policy foes. Plus, their Criminal Justice Legal Foundation staff produces a helpful stream of “news scans.” You don’t have to agree with them, but it pays to hear all sides.

In the same vein, the group Right on Crime produces this blog highlighting its research and activism: an argument for reform from a conservative point of view (which, delightfully, sounds a lot like the liberal point of view because the reform movement has been breaking down ideological barriers, er, left and right).

James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminologist and expert on mass shootings, writes Crime & Punishment for the Boston Globe and writes occasionally for USA Today.

Reuters’ Alison Frankel is all over the white-collar crime scene.

The Innocence Project’s blog does a good job of keeping up with wrongful conviction and other prison-reform issues.

North Country Public Radio (in far-upstate New York) produces Prison Time, a strong, worthwhile series on prison and sentencing reform that’s updated via this blog.

Leading restorative-justice advocate Howard Zehr and his circle of colleagues produce a sporadic stream of posts on research and experiments in their field.

This is another sign of my Texas obsession, but Grits for Breakfast is a must-read.

Solitary Watch is produced by the great reporter James Ridgeway and others.

The Standdown Texas Project tracks reform in that state and others.

Vera Institute’s Current Thinking focuses on reform-minded research.

The thinking and research behind Mark A.R. Kleiman’s important book When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment shows up in The Reality-Based Community blog now and then, as well as in his Twitter feed.

This is isn’t exhaustive. My own RSS feeds and social-media likes and follows constantly grow and change as the writers do the same. (They’re about to grow even more, now that I have new names to check out from the growing list of replies to The Marshall Project’s query.) For now, though, this list isn’t a bad place to start if you’re trying to follow the action in this arena.

A new Marshall plan

The rumblings of an impending launch have grown louder over at The Marshall Project, where the site and associated social-media feeds have begun to fill in details about what’s coming. Noting a growing appetite for criminal justice reform and a “pressing national need for excellent journalism about the U.S. court and prison systems,” the site promises to pursue an agenda that’s entirely in sync with my mission on this much more humble blog:

We believe honest storytelling is a powerful agent of social change. The Marshall Project will be an agenda-setting resource for up-to-the-minute news, in-depth reporting and commentary about criminal justice. Our goal is to help make criminal justice reform an important part of the national debate by the 2016 presidential campaign. Just as a “national conversation” dramatically altered the country’s views on gay marriage and education reform, so too can a national conversation help us confront our troubled courts and prisons.

The combination of curation and creation of such stories sounds much like The Crime Report. If so, that’s a very good thing. And, assuming Marshall creator Neil Barsky et al. come up with their own take on that theme, then all the better. It’s just what we need: more smart, constructive journalism on this topic, to counteract all the exploitative, wrongheaded infotainment and commentary on crime.

News worth paying for

Keeping up with legal news, and criminal justice news in particular, occupies a vast amount of my time and budget. Besides the three daily newspapers I read thoroughly, I harvest my news from blogs, social media, and email services, such as those from my former employer American Lawyer Media. My favorite sources are listed on the blogroll, on the right rail, and are among the more than 70 Twitter feeds I follow. I don’t much care about commentary, unless it’s by an expert whose views I consider essential to understanding what’s happening. More often, I’m reading the work of reporters and narrative storytellers who focus on cases and policy issues that sound like they matter. I also subscribe to a ridiculous number of print magazines and to two e-singles publishers that have launched a bunch of great, original crime narratives, Byliner and Atavist. And my Goodreads to-do list overflows with books in this genre.

Of all those sources of information, none is more consistently helpful in my work than The Crime Report, produced by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Its curated collection of important news stories by other organizations, plus its original reporting, have no peer in the business of tracking important developments in criminal justice. Unlike the many crime-news sites that focus only on blood-and-guts drama and tabloidy fascination with weirdness and violence, The Crime Report cares about substance. That, of course, narrows its audience considerably.

Which is why I’m reaching for my credit card as I finish this blog post, to support and keep receiving the full “Crime Pro” package TCR produces daily. After months of rumblings, the site just announced a metered paywall that makes its full service available for $50 a year — and half-off that price for early signups. If you follow me on this blog and in social media for tips about crime journalism that really matters, then you should care about this enough to pay a modest price to support — and get — quality.