Special Report–Part One
For the first time in two decades, much of the news media coverage of criminal justice in a national election year focused on politics.
Crime issues were prominent in both of Bill Clinton’s campaigns for president in the 1990s. But it wasn’t until Donald Trump made “law and order” a theme during his 2016 campaign that crime emerged as a high-profile issue in the race for the White House.
Because crime is primarily a state and local concern, the national campaigns of Trump, Hillary Clinton, and competitors for their parties’ nominations inevitably touched on issues that already had commanded media attention during the year. Those included crime increases in many big cities, a continued focus on shootings by police, broader issues of police reform, and a crisis in opioid overdoses. Getting somewhat less attention from the media were perennial issues like gun control and prison reform.
Much of this analysis is based on print and online media, but a snapshot of what captured media attention can be seen in the compilation by Andrew Tyndall of the top ten stories covered by the three major broadcast networks’ nightly newscasts, based on the number of minutes they consumed.
- The gay night club massacre in Orlando;
- The killing of five police officers in Dallas; gun control; the killing of a man by a Charlotte police officer;
- The murders of police officers in Baton Rouge;
- Chicago violence;
- Routine police stops that ended in violence;
- Follow-ups on the Charleston, S.C., church massacre;
- Ambushes of police officers generally; and
- The capture of drug lord “El Chapo” Guzman.
This annual assessment of the year in criminal justice as seen by the media was based in part on a conference call conducted by Criminal Justice Journalists on February 1, 2017, with James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, William Freivogel of Southern Illinois University and the Gateway Journalism Review, and Marea Mannion, a senior lecturer in journalism at Penn State’s College of Communications, with contributions from Brandt Williams of Minnesota Public Radio.
CRIME RATES CONTINUE RISING IN MANY CITIES
As an important backdrop to the political campaigns, after many years of declining crime, 2016 was the second consecutive year that many big cities reported murder and violent crime totals beginning to rise again. For much of the year, media coverage of this trend was sporadic, reported city-by-city as local police departments made statistics available. The FBI’s compilation of crime reports from law enforcement agencies nationwide is issued on a delayed basis, usually in September for the previous year. Two organizations, the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, have begun to issue more up-to-date reports from many larger cities.
The result: the public frequently gets incomplete reports on crime trends. Data comparing one year to the previous year may give no indication of the long-term picture. What is happening in one locality may seem the opposite of the trend in another place, with no explanation of the different factors involved.
Besides some of the usual possible causes mentioned, such as gang warfare and availability of guns, the most frequently cited speculation involved the so-called “Ferguson effect,” the idea that many police officers were becoming less aggressive after widespread criticism of police shootings of civilians starting with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in the summer of 2014. Police also were said to be reacting to the prevalence of smart phones that allowed just about any action of officers to be recorded and posted online.
A good summary story appeared in the Washington Post on May 16. Typically, experts cited a number of different causes contributing to the increases in a variety of cities, but no single, overriding factor. The Post made an important point that much coverage tends to overlook: Although crime data are usually reported for cities as a whole, offenses are distributed unequally.
“Some parts of the city are safe, always; and some parts of the city are unsafe,” criminologist Richard Berk of the University of Pennsylvania told the Post.
On September 11, the New York Times did its own analysis, using statistics from the previous year. Headlined “Murder Rates Rose in More than a Quarter of the Nation’s 100 Largest Cities,” the story concluded that “each city appears to have unique circumstances contributing to the uptick.”
Chicago has been a major contributor to the homicide total in big cities, with at least 760 murders last year. In addition to relentless coverage by the Chicago media, the New York Times deserves credit for paying close attention to the problem. On Sunday, June 5, the newspaper devoted more than four full pages in its first section to a story that started on the front page. Headlined “A Weekend in Chicago,” it recounted much of the serious crime in the city over Memorial Day weekend, when 64 people were shot, six of them fatally. The newspaper assigned 16 reporters to work on the package, which it said “captured how much violence has become a part of the city’s fabric.”
The Times followed up with a front-page story on December 22, “Bored, Broke and Armed: The Seeds of South Side Gang Violence.” It was a detailed account of gang life in Chicago based on a reporter’s spending several weeks last fall with gang members.
The Washington Post contributed to the coverage with a front-page story on November 6, with the headline “As killings surge, Chicago police solve fewer cases.” The story said the city’s police department once had one of the best rates in the U.S. of clearing homicides, and now it has one of the worst. At the rate Chicago’s clearances have been heading, the Post said, Chicago detectives would be solving only 1 in 10 killings by 2023.
A CRITIQUE OF CHICAGO’S DAILY NEWSPAPERS
Chicago’s daily newspapers, the Tribune and the Sun-Times, have produced a large volume of stories on the city’s crime problems, and the Tribune has published good stories on police misconduct. On January 30, the Tribune reported that just 124 members of the city’s police force of 12,000 were identified in nearly one-third of the misconduct lawsuits settled since 2009, “suggesting that officers who engaged in questionable behavior did it over and over.”
However, neither newspaper has recently published in-depth series on roots of the city’s violence epidemic that seek to explain why the Chicago crime problem is worse than other major cities.
Asked for a critique, Stephen Franklin of the Community Media Workshop in Chicago, a former Tribune reporter, says that “the Tribune‘s coverage has gotten better and they’ve tried to compare Chicago to other cities. This work has come in long readouts and not focused reports, and they have not explained specifically why Chicago differs from New York or Los Angeles in terms of gangs or guns or community policing or the numbers of black or Latino police.”
The role of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Explosives has been totally ignored, failing to point out a massive lack of support for cracking down on gun sales from … gun stores, gun shows or private sellers. There needs to be an in-depth explanation of the evolution of gangs and how they have evolved and their impact.
There needs to be a very pointed description of what anti-violence programs work and in the city’s and state’s current financial crisis, what programs have been cancelled or never initiated. And so, three years into a terrifying plague of violence, I don’t think most folks here fully understand what’s gone wrong, what’s the solution and why this all matters.
Another media observer, Michael Miner of the Chicago Reader, says, “I admire the focused coverage and large take-outs the New York Times has published on crime in Chicago. I can’t think of the equivalent being done locally, but I believe that’s more a case of the Times being willing to than the local dailies being unwilling to. Crime in Chicago isn’t spotlighted the same way because it’s always in the spotlight … It’s quotidian news here rather than a special report.
But there’s been a lot of [coverage]–not just from the Tribune and Sun-Times but also from the Reader, from whatever outlets Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute rounds up, and from Darryl Holliday’s City Bureau (http://www.citybureau.org), to name some alternative sources. Crime coverage here is also impossible to separate out from political coverage. Laquan McDonald, for instance, was as much a story about an incriminatory videotape being suppressed to protect the mayor’s reelection as it was a story about a police coverup.
Even sports overlaps–I’ve seen stories about the trouble local colleges have recruiting top local black athletes because they’re so eager to move out of their neighborhoods … Crime news isn’t being neglected here, nor is it being covered in a simpleminded bleeds-so-it-leads way.
The New York Times made a special effort in its own city when it reported in depth on each of the 14 murders in the 40th Precinct, a two-square-mile part of The Bronx. Reporters Benjamin Mueller and Al Baker said the project, called “Murder in the 4-0,” was a “way of understanding what drives homicide in a part of the city where crime has hardly dropped in the last 15 years.
CRIME AND THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
It was not Donald Trump but Democratic rival Hillary Clinton who began the political discussion of criminal justice last year, in a February 14 speech at Columbia University. She cited the deaths at police hands of Walter Scott in South Carolina, Tamir Rice in Ohio, Eric Garner in New York City, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore before declaring that, “We have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance.”
Clinton’s choice to focus on criminal justice issues did not serve her well in media reports, which quoted liberals as criticizing her for having sided with her husband Bill’s tough-on-crime approach as president in the 1990s.
Both Bill and Hillary Clinton disavowed their earlier backing of federal aid for extensive state prison building in the big 1994 U.S. anticrime law, and media coverage offered a somewhat fuzzy picture of the Democratic candidate on the issue.
On April 11, the New York Times reviewed the record, concluding that the law the Clintons supported had only a modest effect on the national increases in incarceration, which had been under way well before the measure was passed.
Hillary Clinton also got flak—and news coverage– for having once seemingly endorsed the now-discredited “super-predator” concept—the idea in the 1990s that there was a large national contingent of incorrigible juvenile delinquents. She apologized for the statement during the 2016 campaign.
During the Democratic National Convention in July, a Washington Post editorial credited Clinton with highlighting criminal justice issues like police reform during her campaign, and criticized Trump for offering “slogans rather than solutions.”
Contrasting himself with Clinton, Trump focused on the high murder totals in some cities and declared himself as the “law and order” candidate, backing the use of “stop and frisk” practices by police and other, unspecified “tough” tactics.
One of the first media organizations to take a close look at Trump’s stances was The Crime Report of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. A March 28 analysis by Adam Wisnieski concluded that Trump “has eluded easy definition,” and added that the Republican had not opposed proposals for criminal justice reform but rather had “avoided talking about it.” Wisnieski observed that “Until recently, when asked for comments on the issue, Trump responded by threatening to get ‘tougher’ on criminals, or by defending police.”
The Crime Report also recounted Trump’s speech in July to the Republican National Convention, saying that, “The closest he got to any concrete proposal was a promise that he’d ‘work with and appoint the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the country.’ “
There was much more media concentration on the Republicans when the campaign was in full swing in the fall.
The New York Times devoted much of a lengthy front-page story on September 22 to Trump and “stop and frisk,” saying that the candidate “remains an unabashed fan of the tactic and has glossed over the legal and racial objections to its use for years.”
The next day, the Times took a closer look at Trump’s proposals, headlining a front page article, “Trump’s Law-and-Order Plan is Seen as Falling on Minorities.” The newspaper conceded that the Republican’s plans were “sketchy” and “difficult to analyze,” but it concluded, quoting “civil rights activists and national security veterans” that his platform “could have the effect of treating minorities with suspicion and singling them out for heavier government scrutiny.”
While Trump declined to elaborate on many details of his policy proposals, he portrayed himself as the candidate of police. He did answer a questionnaire from the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, which endorsed him.
Trump frequently mentioned his “law and order” approach during the campaign, but news organizations were unable to flesh it out very thoroughly.
In a “Contract With the American Voter” released on October 22, Trump laid out his substantive platform, which included a promise to propose a “Restoring Community Safety Act” in his first 100 days in office; but there was little, if any, mention of it in the mainstream media before the election. Trump said he would propose a bill to create a “Task Force on Violent Crime” and increase funding for programs that “train and assist” local police, among other provisions.
POLICING – MORE SHOOTINGS, ANY SOLUTIONS?
Ever since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, police killings and other severe treatment of civilians has been a major topic of news coverage. The trend continued through 2016 with a number of well-publicized incidents, from Charlotte, N.C. to Tulsa, Ok., that made the national news and were reported on locally in depth.
For the second calendar year, the Washington Post and The Guardian compiled their own counts of police shootings in the absence of a complete national count by a federal agency. On December 31, the Post published its year-end tally, saying that there had been 957 fatal shootings by police around the nation during the year, down from 991 in 2015. In what the paper called a “notable shift,” many more of the shooting – 231 – were captured on video in 2016 than in the previous year.
The Guardian, using a somewhat broader definition, counted 1,092 people last year who died after being “shot, tasered and struck by police vehicles as well as those who died in police custody.”
On December 15, The Guardian reported on a new compilation by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, finding more than twice as many homicides by police than had previously been reported by the FBI. (The Guardian appears to have stopped the count this year, but the Post is continuing.)
Among widely-publicized incidents last year: On July 5, Alton Sterling, 37, was shot and killed during a confrontation with two police officers outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La. The next day, a Minnesota officer fatally shot Philando Castile, 32, while he was in a car with a woman and child in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights. The fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old black man, as he was sitting in his parked vehicle outside his apartment in Charlotte on Sept. 20 provoked large protests in the city.
The Charlotte Observer provided extensive coverage of the Scott case and its violent aftermath. Among its many stories relating to the incident, the newspaper reported that two months before Scott was killed, Black Lives Matter members had heckled Mayor Jennifer Roberts at a City Council meeting, which the newspaper called a “possible warning sign of escalating tension.”
The policing story in the U.S. took a dramatic turn in Dallas on July 7, when an Army Reserve Afghan War veteran named Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed a group of police officers, killing five and injuring nine others before being killed himself. Johnson was angry over police shootings of black men and said he wanted to kill white people, especially white police officers.
Then, on July 17, a Kansas City, Mo., man named Gavin Long ambushed and killed three officers and wounded three others in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
After these incidents and another one the same month in which a shooter at a Munich, Germany, shopping mall killed nine people and injured 27 others before killing himself, Mother Jones warned of a “chilling rise of copycat mass shooters.” Yet there were relatively few mass shootings for the rest of 2016.
Some coverage contended that the number of violent acts against police was higher than ever, but data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund show that many more officers were killed on duty in the 1970s than in recent years. The total of police officers killed in felonious acts was 280 in 1974, and it exceeded 200 in all but one other year in that decade.
Even with the Dallas and Baton Rouge episodes, last year’s total in the U.S. was 135.
The lives of most police officers do not revolve around shootings, but many Americans do not appreciate the breadth of issues a typical law enforcement officer encounters.
In an attempt to fill this gap soon after the Dallas and Baton Rouge incidents, the New York Times on Sunday, July 24, published “One Shift: Officers Patrol an Anxious America,” a lengthy account of ride-alongs its reporters took with officers in ten cities. “With the exception of some cities still awash in violence, crime has dropped, and the job has changed,” the story said. The long feature covered Prince George’s County, Md.; Paulding County, Ga.; Coventry, Ct.; Milwaukee; Houston; Seattle; Compton, Ca; New York City; Cambridge, Ma.; and Park Forest, Il. Observing the constant risks of a policing job, Deputy Constable Steve Faulkner of Houston said, “Your head’s on a swivel now.”
In addition to the basic count of killings by officers, the Washington Post continued its coverage of the previous year’s shootings. In a lead story on Sunday, April 3, the newspaper reported that the officers involved in one in five killings by police in 2015 had not been publicly identified. In one Chicago case the Post used as its lead anecdote, an agreement with the city’s police union blocked the disclosure.
There was less also coverage of efforts to reduce the number of unnecessary shootings. One exception was the Washington Post, which followed the policy debates more than most other media organizations did. On March 31, the newspaper reported on a proposal by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) to call on officers to “de-escalate” confrontations when feasible, an idea that some law enforcement organizations criticized. “What a ridiculous piece of claptrap!” said the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.
The plan was discussed in the fall at the annual convention of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), whose president was quoted as being skeptical about the PERF plan. (This year, the IACP led its own police coalition to propose a consensus statement on de-escalation.)
The Post also took a look at the national status of police reforms in a story on September 26 after the Keith Lamont Scott killing in Charlotte. In a piece headlined “Fatal police shootings keep pace, but reform efforts lag,” the newspaper focused on delays in efforts to improve training for officers, explaining that with 18,000 police departments around the U.S., “many with their own training academies and unions [it is] impossible for them to move in unison.”
On August 22, the Post examined the issue of early warning systems within police departments to spot problem officers, reporting that since 1994, 36 investigations of local police departments by the U.S. Justice Department found that local law enforcement agencies “had deeply flawed early intervention systems or no system in place at all.”
Other media reported on a problem that has been largely overlooked by journalists: the fact that it’s fairly easy for officers with extensive disciplinary records to be dropped by one police agency only to be hired quickly by another. On Sunday, September 11, the New York Times explored this phenomenon, with several anecdotes about “gypsy cops.” The paper quoted law Prof. Roger Goldman of St. Louis University, who has long advocated a national database of officers who have been convicted, fired or forced to resign, named in judgments or settlements involving misconduct, or have had their law enforcement licenses revoked.
The Wall Street Journal published a similar story on December 30, concluding that the nation’s police misconduct problem “might in part stem from the presence of a small but persistent minority of ‘bad apple’ officers who are allowed to stay on the job.” The Journal traced outcomes for 3,458 police officers from across the U.S. whose arrests resulted in their losing jobs or being convicted—or both—in the seven years through 2011. It found that 1,927 who left their departments after brushes with the law weren’t in law enforcement in 2015 but had not been placed on any list of decertified officers, which would create a prohibition to their returning to the profession in their states. Almost 10 percent—332—of the officers, remained in law enforcement.
TERROR IN ORLANDO
In the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard, entered a gay nightclub in Orlando on June 12, where he shot and killed 49 people and wounded dozens more. Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State before he was killed by police. The mainstream media understandably gave the case saturation coverage for days.
The Los Angeles Times did a good job of piecing together an earlier FBI investigation of Mateen that did not lead to charges against him. In an investigation that went from May 2013 to March 2014, agents concluded that Mateen was not a threat and closed the case, the Times said. “We don’t have a crystal ball, unfortunately,” a senior FBI official told the newspaper. “We went right up to the edge of what we could do legally, and there was just nothing there.”
A few weeks before the Orlando shooting, the Washington Post published a notable story, headlined “Most mass shooters aren’t mentally ill.” The article said it was wrong to believe, as many Americans say in opinion surveys, and as then-President Barack Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) also had said, that mental illness was a connecting link between many people who had committed some of the nation’s worst shooting atrocities.
Even though lawmakers at the federal and state levels have proposed or enacted laws linking mental health care improvements to mass shootings, the offenders in most such cases have not had classic mental problems like schizophrenia. “It would be ridiculous to hope that doing something about the mental health system will stop these mass murders,” said forensic psychiatrist Michael Stone of the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Earlier, the Post raised the question “Are mass shootings contagious?” in a front-page headline. The March 9 story was published after a man in Kalamazoo, Mi., had killed six people while driving for Uber, followed five days later by a man in Kansas shooting 17 people. In the article, Gary Slutkin of the group Cure Violence, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, declared that, “Mass shootings are a risk factor for mass shootings.” Criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern was quoted as a skeptic, saying that “the majority of mass killers don’t need someone else to give them the idea.”
THE OPIOID EPIDEMIC HITS THE MEDIA
The big drug story of 2016 differed from the earlier narrative of inner-city wars over heroin and cocaine. This time it was a tale of overdose deaths often most affecting hitting middle-class areas of the Midwest. Newspapers including the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in hard-hit areas gave the plague intensive coverage.
In one example of enterprise reporting, the Enquirer has had a reporter, Terry DeMio, assigned for four years to cover the heroin beat. She traveled to Baltimore, which has long been struggling to deal with drug problems, to produce a four-part series that appeared in October, headlined, “Five things Baltimore can teach us about fighting heroin.”
The Washington Post also published notable stories in a series with the tagline “Unnatural Causes.” On Sunday, July 24, a long feature told the story of heroin addict Amanda Wendler of Farmington Hills, Mi. The newspaper said its coverage was based partly on the fact that drug overdoses are now the leading cause of injury-related deaths in the U.S.—worse than guns, car crashes, or suicides.
On October 16, the newspaper documented the drug industry’s quest for new drugs to treat the side effects of widely-prescribed opioids, making the point that drug makers were profiting by providing even more pills to counteract the impact of drugs they had made earlier.
Six days later, the newspaper placed on the front page of its Sunday newspaper a story headlined, “DEA retreats in its war on opioids.” The story said that a decade ago, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had started a campaign against companies that distributed hundreds of millions of highly addictive pills to corrupt pharmacies and “pill mills” that sold them for street use. Enforcement dropped markedly after the industry complained. The Post followed up on December 23 with an article reporting that firms that manufacture or distribute addictive pills had hired at least 42 DEA employees, prompting one watchdog group to comment, “It’s not a surprise that DEA isn’t as vigilant as it once was when so many ex-feds are working for the companies that they once investigated.”
Also getting extensive attention was the continued trend toward legalization of marijuana. Most major media organizations covered votes in California and four other states to legalize recreational marijuana use. On November 2, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported that billionaires Sean Parker and George Soros, along with companies hoping to profit from pot legalization, helped the campaign raise nearly $16 million, about four times the amount spent on a failed effort in 2010.
Still, the subject nationwide got much less media play than the groundbreaking 2012 legalization votes in Colorado and Washington state.
In an important series about drug enforcement, Ryan Gabrielson and Topher Sanders wrote in ProPublica about often unreliable “field tests” used by police officers in many of the 1.2 million arrests made each year in the U.S. for illegal drug possession. The piece reported that many of the tests, with kits that cost about $2 and have changed little since 1973, produce false positive results, leading to wrongful arrests. The series won an award this year from the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
GUN CONTROL FADES AS MAJOR MEDIA ISSUE
After the Newtown, Ma., school massacre in late 2012, gun control re-emerged as a major political issue, with several states enacting firearms curbs and President Obama making an ultimately unsuccessful effort to pass new federal legislation.
While there was periodic coverage by the news media of gun issues last year, there was far less than had appeared in the months after Newtown.
One exception to the dearth of coverage was the website TheTrace.org, which was launched in mid-2015 with seed funding from Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety organization. In its first full calendar year, The Trace produced a solid record of stories on gun violence issues, several in partnership with better-known news organizations.
Another exception was New York Times, which covered the gun issue well, if sporadically. On February 8, the lead story was headlined “Crackdown Plan for Gun Sellers Sits at Impasse.” It described how very little had been done by federal agencies to follow up on a “plan for stemming gun violence” that President Obama had announced the month before.
In the fall, the Times devoted part of the front page and two full inside pages on Saturday, October 22, to an examination of the 130 cases in 2015 in which four or more people had been shot. The newspaper said its findings were “dispiriting to anyone hoping for simple legislative fixes to gun violence.” In more than half of the 130 cases, at least one assailant was already barred by law from possessing a weapon but had one anyway. In 40 percent of the remaining cases, the shooter had no criminal record and could have acquired a firearm legally even in places with strict gun controls.
MASS INCARCERATION AND THE MEDIA
The high national imprisonment rate never has been a dominant subject in the news, as media consumers generally put prisons near the bottom of their list of interests. It is mostly a state and local governmental issue, not a federal or national one.
One fairly rare prominent treatment of the subject of criminal sentencing appeared in the New York Times on July 5. The newspaper focused on lengthy sentences like a life-without-parole term given to Lenny Singleton of Virginia for a theft spree to fuel a crack cocaine habit. About 160,000 people are serving life terms, about one-ninth of the states’ prison populations.
The Times produced several other examples of notable coverage related to incarceration. On September 2, the newspaper documented how “large parts of rural and suburban America” have reported rising prison-admission rates even as crime has fallen. Dearborn County, In., for example, sent more people to prison in 2014 than did San Francisco or Westchester County, N.Y., each with 13 times the population.
On the federal level, incarceration finally got some attention in recent years, as some key members of Congress in both parties realized that federal prisons were consuming more than one-fourth of the Justice Department’s budget and had not kept up with reform ideas adopted by many states.
Yet bills to address the issue never made it to the floors of either the Senate or the House despite predictions in some quarters that it could be a fairly easy “reform” topic in gridlocked Washington.
The New York Times published a good analysis of the main reform bill’s death on September 17, calling the failure a “stunning display of dysfunction,” but the story itself was buried in the depths of a Saturday edition. The article predicted that sentencing reform would be back in 2017, but it inadvertently raised some doubts about the prospect by prominently quoting Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), an opponent of the bill. The newspaper had no way of knowing that he would end up serving in the key position of Attorney General under President Donald Trump.
The Washington Post gets credit for devoting seven full pages of its Sunday edition on July 10 to the stories of federal inmates whose prison sentences had been commuted by President Obama one year earlier. The Post noted that the people they wrote about were not pardoned, so they were still convicted felons, which has implications for jobs, housing and education aid. The newspaper said it had 40 reporters and editors tracking down the clemency recipients.
The Post also closely followed the problems of an Obama administration clemency initiative that set a record in terms of President Obama’s actions shortening sentences but still fell short of dealing with many thousands of petitions from federal inmates.
The Post devoted part of its front page on Saturday, January 30 to ‘A prison within a prison,’ a story declaring that, “The use of solitary confinement has reached a watershed moment in the United States.” The newspaper used the story of Kevin Bushrod, Jr., who spent six months in solitary after being charged with trying to kill a police officer with his car, to detail a solitary confinement system in Washington, D.C., in which some inmates say they don’t know why they are in solitary and have little chance to get out of it.
Prison conditions rarely are prime subjects of news media coverage, in large part because access by reporters to correctional institutions can be difficult, but more broadly because of the perception of editors and news directors that public interest is limited, absent a scandal or a riot.
The Miami Herald continued reporting on abuse of prisoners in the state’s institutions, describing on September 20 a lawsuit filed by the family of a 27-year-old prisoner who allegedly was killed in 2010 by corrections officers who tortured, gassed and beat him. The newspaper said the lawsuit was the latest in a series filed against the state involving inmates who died, allegedly as a result of mistreatment by staff members.
In New York State, the New York Times published notable stories on Sunday, December 4 and Monday, December 5, on racial bias both in the state prisons and the parole system. In the first story, written by three reporters, the newspaper said it had reviewed tens of thousands of disciplinary cases against inmates in 2015 and found that blacks and Latinos were disciplined at rates far higher than were whites in some prisons twice as often. The Times said disparities existed even correcting for the fact that blacks were disproportionately in prison for violent offenses and minority inmates were disproportionately younger.
The newspaper explained the phenomenon largely in terms of an “upstate-downstate” culture difference in which staff members from rural, white areas where most prisons are located were dealing with minority inmates from cities.
In the second story, “For Blacks Facing Parole, Signs of Broken System in New York,” the newspaper analyzed thousands of parole decisions from the past few years, and found that fewer than one in six black or Hispanic men were ordered released at their first parole hearing, compared with one in four white men. The Times also gave an example of a particular burglary offense for which blacks on average served longer terms than whites: 883 days compared with 803 days.
The newspaper also documented a lack of diversity among the state’s parole commissioners, who make the decisions on releasing inmates.
Criminologist Charles Wellford of the University of Maryland was critical of the Times. In a note to the author of this survey, Wellford said that the newspaper had published a headline suggesting that it had proved “rampant racism” in the state prisons—but that the story contained “lots of unsupported speculation masked as statistical analysis.” Wellford added that it should have been clear, as the newspaper suggested in its story, that the “model was incomplete” because the Times did not have access to inmates’ full disciplinary files, which could explain some of the decisions in their cases. Said Wellford: “Journalists are best when they describe an event or phenomenon. My concern is when they go on their own to make causal analyses. At that point, their work is consistently weak and very misleading to the public.”
After the Times’ stories appeared, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered an investigation by the state inspector general into what he called the “disturbing” evidence of racial bias reported by the newspaper.
A spokesman for the New York prison system declined an offer to critique the Times‘ reporting. The agency did say that, “In order to accurately analyze inmate discipline you must take into consideration a multitude of factors. Some of those factors include the underlying behavior, what cohort of inmates are engaging in the behavior, where does the behavior occur, as well as an inmate’s overall institutional disciplinary record.”
A notable piece of work involving private prisons was a lengthy account by Shane Bauer in Mother Jones. Bauer spend four months working as a guard at a Louisiana private prison then run by the Corrections Corporation of America. He provided rich detail of how the facility was operated by the private firm, including episodes involving staff not following company policies. The story won a criminal justice reporting award this year given by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
In “Inside the Deadly World of Private Prisoner Transport,” The Marshall Project wrote about the tens of thousands of fugitives and suspects who are transported each year by small private companies that specialize in extraditions. The article, based on interviews and a review of documents, found a “pattern of prisoner abuse and neglect in an industry that operates with almost no oversight.” It won a runner-up award in the John Jay contest.
PROSECUTION – A LARGELY IGNORED MEDIA SUBJECT
Amid dramatic killings by police, mass shootings, and mass incarceration, the justice system’s inner workings usually get much less attention from the media.
Credit the New York Times with a series, “No Money, No Mercy,” which it described as “how money undermined reforms to America’s criminal justice system.” On December 12, the newspaper published “Spared From a Criminal Record, As Long as You Can Pay,” which told of “diversion” programs in which prosecutors choose to “spare low-risk offenders from the devastating consequences of a criminal record” by choosing not to prosecute them if they stay out of trouble for a specified period, also taking classes or performing community service, depending on the case.
The problem, said the Times, is that in “many places, only people with money could afford a second chance.” Prosecutors often require those who seek diversion to pay fees that can range from $500 to $5,000. Even $500 can be prohibitive for an indigent defendant. The newspaper looked at 225 diversion programs in 37 states.
SECOND CHANCE CITY – WASHINGTON, D.C.
While the phrase “second chance” as applied to convicts usually appears in the media to characterize helping ex-prisoners return successfully to society, the Washington Post used it as a tagline for a series suggesting that the city’s justice system was giving second chances too freely to repeat criminals.
In a front-page story on May 15, reporter Amy Brittain used a rape case to discuss the city’s Youth Rehabilitation Act, which the newspaper said, “combined with lax enforcement by key federal agencies, can give many chances to violent offenders despite repeated criminal behavior and the failure to abide by terms of release.”
On September 6, the Post quoted departing Police Chief Cathy Lanier as saying “the criminal justice system in this city is … beyond broken.” She cited the case of a man who was on home detention when his GPS tracking device became inoperable, and he then went on a crime spree. “The agency that supervises that person didn’t tell anybody or do anything about it… it’s happening over and over and over again. Where the hell is the outrage?” Lanier asked.
The Post returned to the issue in a front-page takeout on Sunday, December 4, “How a mercy law enables criminals,” documented how hundreds of criminals sentenced under the Youth Rehabilitation Act got a second chance to be back on the street but went on “to rob, rape or kill.” The newspaper obtained data from the D.C. Sentencing Commission for the outcome of every felony case since 2010 and found that at least 750 offenders had been sentenced multiple times under the Youth Act in the last decade.
Another story in the Second Chance City series, on December 22, started by interviewing a man serving a 22-year-prison term who said he had committed 100 robberies in Washington before committing a murder. He had received a 6-month prison sentence under the youth law, then “returned to the streets to commit more robberies and sell crack cocaine.”
On December 29, the Post took aim at the federal Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in Washington, which loses track of high-risk offenders about 150 times a year and does not notify the public about it. About once a week, a D.C. offender under federal supervision is either a victim or suspect in a homicide investigation. Nearly one of four people charged with a killing in last year was under the agency’s supervision.
One of the few journalists who have specialized in criminal justice over a long period took a buyout at year’s end, Gary Fields of the Wall Street Journal. Fields had been a Journal reporter for nearly 17 years after 10 years at USA Today. He was one of the nation’s most knowledgeable journalists on corrections issues.
For Part 2 of the Report, please click HERE
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists, and a co-founder and Washington bureau Chief of The Crime Report.
The Center on Media, Crime and Justice gratefully acknowledges the support of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation for our annual media surveys.