Are reporters missing the real story about our criminal justice system? A veteran California journalist says a recent conference on the state's Three-Strikes law exposed the system's endemic racism.
The racism within the police-court-prison system is one of America's most neglected evils, as is the impact it has on the poor African-American and Latino communities that are home for so many released convicts.
I'm wondering if I've already lost some of my readers. Who cares about criminals? Some of the journalists I met last week said they get the same reaction from their editors.
I joined them at a symposium sponsored by New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice's Center on Media, Crime and Justice designed to encourage better reporting of this neglected field. We spent two days at the University of
Southern California talking with a range of experts guided by center director Stephen Handelman and Joe Domanick, the associate director.
My fellow attendees were journalists working for newspapers, radio stations and online operations. Some were staff reporters, others freelancers. Two who sat near me illustrated the diversity of the gathering. On one side was Rose Davis, founder of Indian Voices , a website and newspaper covering social justice issues of the Native American and other minority communities. On the other side was Mary Slosson, executive producer for the USC Annenberg journalism school's NeonTommy website.
The main topic was how to report the long and repetitive controversy over California's three-strikes law, a draconian statute approved by the voters in 1994 after the horrible murder of 12-year-old Polly Klass by an ex-convict. The killer had been released from prison after serving eight years of a 16-year sentence for a series of armed robberies. Previously, he served six years in prison after he attempted a rape, brutally assaulted a woman in the course of a burglary, and tried to kidnap another woman at gunpoint.
The solution to this was based on a sports analogy, except, in this case, the third strike means you're in—in prison for a long time and often for a small offense. The law imposes a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life for anyone convicted of a felony if that person has two previous felony convictions. The third-strikes sentence has been imposed for nonviolent offenses—such as stealing videos, golf clubs or even a pizza—permitted by the law to be raised to felony status.
The discussions ranged far beyond three-strikes. Through all the conversations, an underlying issue, to me, was racism.
Racism has always been a powerful force in the web of police, prosecutors, judges, prison guards and wardens who make up the criminal justice system.
But beginning in the 1980s the war on drugs made it worse, with repeated raids on poor African-American and Latino neighborhoods while the cops and prosecutors generally ignored economically better-off whites using cocaine in the safety of their homes.
Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney who heads the Advancement Project, has long fought for racial justice by police, prosecutors and the courts, as well as in the
schools and other institutions. She told the journalists the war on drugs was based on crime suppression in poor, minority areas. Cops stop young men and arrest them when they suspect drug possession. Arrests add up over the years to a third strike.
The three-strikes prosecutions, said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California Irvine School of Law, focus disproportionately on African-Americans and Latinos. Thirty-seven percent of such inmates are African-Americans and 33 percent are Latinos. These statistics are in line with national figures showing that African-Americans and Latinos outnumber whites in prison by a margin of almost 2-to-1.
Veteran activist Tom Hayden, an expert on gangs, talked about the lack of jobs confronting convicts when they leave prison. A one-striker, returned to the old neighborhood unemployed and without prospects, is just a crime away from being a two-striker and then committing the third. “Deindustrialization has eliminated jobs people took after prison,” he said.
The journalists' challenge, said Connie Rice, is “to connect the dots,” to put all these elements into a coherent, compelling story.
That's a big challenge, and journalism may not be up to it. At the end of the meeting, the hard facts of life in today's media climate intruded. One reporter said her editors weren't interested in the subject because they didn't think the readers cared.
Another was a court reporter who wanted to explore how the system works on the streets. But her beat includes two courthouses, separated by many miles in a sprawling county. I doubt whether she has much time for prowling the streets. A third reporter talked about the strains imposed on the remaining members of a staff hit by layoffs.
Add to those obstacles Internet editors' demands for quick and numerous short stories that will produce more hits and page views.
Despite the challenges, I left the room tremendously impressed with the energy of the reporters. One said he had thought of 21 story ideas during the symposium. The journalists are today's civil rights reporters, engaged in a job as big and challenging, but much more unglamorous, than that of an earlier generation. During the civil rights movement, it was easy to get people worked up about an African-American kid barred from a school or a church burned down. Today, it is almost impossible to stimulate the interest of editors and audiences in a black or Latino ex-convict hoping for a fresh chance rather than a third strike.
ED NOTE: This story originally appeared May 9 on Truthdig.com.
Bill Boyarsky is a political correspondent for Truthdig and former city editor, columnist and Pulitzer-Prizewinning reporter for The Los Angeles Times. In 2010, the Los Angeles Press Club named him Online Journalist of the Year. This year, Truthdig won the 2011 Webby Award in the Blog-Political category.