Justice Reform Subverted by Politics, says Bill Moyers

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Political “ambition” and rhetoric have subverted efforts to reform the U.S. criminal justice system, says veteran TV journalist Bill Moyers.

“No other nation in the world permits its justice system to be organized around political ambition,” Moyers said in an interview aired Tuesday on CUNY-TV, the public network operated by the City University of New York.

Moyers said the practice in many jurisdictions across the country of electing judges and prosecutors clouds serious debate about challenges like prison reform by appealing to the kind of “tough on crime” rhetoric that appears to win elections—but is often unrelated to fact.

“You get political appeals, not the appeal of data and reason brought to bear,” said Moyers, who was most recently executive producer on “Rikers: An American Jail,” a hard-hitting documentary about New York’s troubled detention facility.

Moyers told Stephen Handelman, host of the monthly “Criminal Justice Matters” program and editor of The Crime Report, he believed there was a rising public awareness of the need for justice reforms in both “red states and blue states.”

But he added there was also a need for more public service journalism that could provide the facts required by the public to weigh the variety of options for change, especially at a moment when President Donald Trump and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions are arguing that the only way to deal with criminals “is to lock’em up and throw away the key.”

Moyers, who served as a special assistant to President Lyndon Baines Johnson when the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice was established in 1965, warned that many of the principles established in the commission’s landmark report were in danger of being reversed by the new administration.


President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Photo by manhhai via Flickr.

Recalling that LBJ had once told him that “A man’s judgment is no better than his information,” Moyers said the commission’s first challenge was to gather data on operations of the justice system that until then had never been tabulated on a national level.

“Data is the backbone of reform (and) in 1965 we had no national data on crime,” Moyer said. “We did not consider criminal justice as a system. Even LBJ believed that the federal government had nothing to do with local justice.”

After exploring the relationship among police, prosecutors, courts, and corrections, the commission report, released in 1967, developed recommendations aimed at making the prison system “less venal and the justice system more efficient,” said Moyers, whose 40-year career as a public broadcaster earned him 46 Emmys and nine Peabody Awards.

His groundbreaking public affairs series have included NOW with Bill Moyers (2002-05), Bill Moyers Journal (2007-10), and Moyers & Company (2011-15).

Moyers said such an approach was still crucial to helping raise public awareness of the need to develop further solutions to problems such as prison overcrowding or bail reform.

Editor’s Note: In March, a bipartisan group of Senators introduced legislation to create a national justice commission, the first nationwide review of the justice system since the LBJ commission 50 years ago.

Moyers described his Rikers film, released last year, as an effort to bring people face to face with the stories of those suffering from the “culture of brutality” in many jails across the country.

While “brilliant reporting” by journalists has exposed the patterns of violence that have made Rikers a notorious example of that culture, Moyers said he wanted to let former inmates speak directly to the camera, “unfiltered” by journalists, to bring those issues home.

He said that he hoped the film would prod authorities to undertake the reforms suggested by a New York City commission, chaired by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman—including replacing Rikers with smaller facilities situated in the neighborhoods where many of the offenders came from.

“Until you see the person who is suffering (from the system), you can’t understand it on an emotional and conscientious level,” he said.

At the same time, he called on journalists to concentrate on policy and data, rather than be deflected by the political rhetoric.

Moyers was named last week by John Jay College and The Crime Report as the 2018 Justice Media Trailblazer, an annual honor recognizing individuals in the media and media-related fields who have made a major impact on the justice debate.

He will receive the award at a dinner at John Jay College in New York on Feb. 15, 2018.

Judge Lippman will introduce him.

The dinner is open to the public, but advance reservations are required. Information about the dinner is available here.