A riveting year-long investigation of Mississippi’s “debtor prisons” and a series of stories documenting the New York Police Department’s failure to hold officers accountable for excessive use of force are the winners of the nation’s most prestigious award for justice journalism.
Karol V. Mason, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Dan Wilhelm, president of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, announced Thursday that the 16th annual John Jay College/Harry Frank Guggenheim awards for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting will be presented to the staff of ProPublica and to Anna Wolfe and Michelle Liu of Mississippi Today, working in partnership with The Marshall Project.
“This year’s winning projects show us the power of justice journalism. As an institution that educates fierce advocates for justice, we are proud to highlight their work,” said President Mason. “Each of these projects shined a bright light on injustice and inequity and sparked calls for action leading to significant policy changes.”
“For the sixteenth year in a row, The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation is pleased to recognize the most compelling journalistic examinations of crime, violence, and justice in the United States,” said Foundation President Daniel F. Wilhelm. “Such work is essential to understanding how best to address the challenges our society faces in these important areas.”
“Every year, the John Jay College/Harry Frank Guggenheim awards remind us how critical informed reporting on our justice system is to the health of our democracy,” said Steve Handelman, director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ) at John Jay College. “We are proud to honor this year’s winners and spotlight the integral role journalists play in the fight for civil rights.”
The prizes, administered by John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice, publisher of The Crime Report, recognize the previous year’s best print and online justice reporting in a U.S.-based media outlet between November 2019 and October 2020. Winning entries in each of the two categories share a cash award of $1,500 and a plaque. Runners-up (see below) receive certificates of Honorable Mention.
The 2021 Winners
Anna Wolfe and Michelle Liu, reporting for Mississippi Today and The Marshall Project, share the 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award (Single-Story Category) for exposing Mississippi’s practice of forcing individuals convicted of low-level felony offenses to work off their fines and other court debts at low-wage jobs during the day while they are confined in locked facilities at night until the debts are paid.
Their story, “Think Debtors Prisons are a Thing of the Past? Not in Mississippi,” revealed that Mississippi’s four so-called “restitution centers” effectively serve as debtors’ prisons, with some individuals confined for as long as five years while they work at low-wage, dangerous jobs such as slaughtering chickens or gutting catfish, the story found. Most of the money they earn in fact goes to pay “room and board” at the centers, driving a vicious cycle of incarceration and debt that “penalizes the poorest residents of the poorest state in the country,” University of Mississippi professor Cliff Johnson was quoted as saying in the story.
Wolfe and Liu, who interviewed more than 50 current and formerly incarcerated people for the piece, worked closely with senior investigative editor Leslie Eaton at The Marshall Project to develop and report the story. TMP’s Andrew Calderon assisted in the examination of hundreds of pages of court documents and transcripts of hearings, as well as analyzing a database of sentencing orders so readers could see how much people owed to prove that they were sentenced for money, rather than time.
“Our first-of-its-kind data analysis and in-depth reporting immediately made waves,” Susan Chira, TMP Editor-in-Chief, said in a letter accompanying the submission, noting that the reporters’ findings were widely publicized in local and national media and led to the filing of several bills in the state legislature to close down the centers.
The Mississippi Today investigation has been recognized elsewhere. In February the story won the Sidney Award, and in September, it was also honored with the Online News Association’s Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award.
The reporting staff of ProPublica won the 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award (Series Category) for “The NYPD Files,” an investigation that documented how seldom allegations about excessive use of force by the New York Police Department (NYPD) resulted in serious discipline. The ProPublica team—including Eric Umansky, Joaquin Sapien, Topher Sanders, Mollie Simon, Moiz Syed, Derek Willis, Lena Groeger, Adriana Gallardo, Joshua Kaplan and Lucas Waldron—created an online database based on records held by the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, revealing for example that in 2018, the most recent year when complete data were available, only 73 of 3,000 allegations of force were substantiated.
The publication of police disciplinary records, which had been largely unavailable to the public, opened “an unprecedented window to one of the most opaque disciplinary systems in American policing,” and demonstrated how “a veneer of civilian oversight belies the reality that America’s largest police force largely disciplines itself,” ProPublica Editor-in-Chief Stephen Engelberg said in a letter accompanying the submission.
The database quickly became a resource for investigations by other media and was viewed nearly a million times by ordinary New Yorkers, Engelberg added. “The information in it, which we made available for free on our Data Store, is our most-downloaded dataset of all time.”
Subsequent reporting in the series probed specific examples of questionable disciplinary proceedings in partnership with THE CITY, another nonprofit news outlet. Among its findings: several high-ranking NYPD officers had been repeatedly promoted despite “long records of serious civilian complaints.”
The 2021 Runners-Up
Runner-Up in the Single-Story Category was awarded to The Washington Post, which revealed that the results of therapy sessions with undocumented migrant children were shared with U.S. immigration authorities for possible use in court proceedings against them. The story by Post reporter Hannah Dreier, entitled “Trust and Consequences,” was based on a year-long investigation that included examining hundreds of pages of court documents and immigration files. Dreier told her story through the eyes of a Honduran teenager named Kevin Euceda, who was held in detention for over two years on the grounds that he represented a danger, based on information shared from supposedly confidential interviews with a government therapist. Publication triggered the introduction of bills in Congress that would ban such information-sharing, as well as calls for oversight hearings into what the American Psychological Association called a “vile” breach of patient confidentiality.
Tony Plohetski of the Austin American-Statesman was named Runner-Up in the Series Category for a multimedia series exposing the activities of a Texas sheriff’s office which used a reality TV show as a platform for violent and aggressive tactics. Plohetski examined three years of use-of-force reports in the sheriff’s office of Williamson County, north of Austin, and found that the number had doubled since Sheriff Robert Chody began participating in a show called “Live PD.” Focusing on the death of a 40-year-old Black man, Javier Ambler II, at the hands of police, Plohetski unearthed footage showing that Ambler’s appeals for help had been ignored by deputies who continued to tase him as the cameras rolled.
In the process, Plohetski “exposed a policing culture that glorified violence—often for the sake of a television show—that had been meted out on dozens of people, a disproportionate number of them Black,” said John Bridges, executive editor of the Statesman in a letter accompanying the prize submission. Publication of the story contributed to the sheriff’s loss in his bid for reelection and helped trigger a national debate about the role of police reality-TV shows. “Live PD” has since been cancelled.
The awards will be presented at an online event March 5, 2021, held in conjunction with the 16th annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The public is invited to attend.
Editor’s Note: Information on how to register for the Symposium and for the prize ceremony will be available shortly. Please contact Stephen Handelman, director of the CMCJ, at email@example.com
Jurors for the 2021 awards
Alexa Capeloto, Associate Professor, John Jay College; Joe Domanick, Associate Director, Center on Media, Crime and Justice; Ted Gest, President, Criminal Justice Journalists; Ann Charlotte Givens of The Trace; Katti Gray, contributing editor, The Crime Report; Kyle Hopkins, Anchorage Daily News, winner of the 2019 John Jay Journalism Prize in the Series Category); Mark Obbie, criminal justice solutions specialist at Solutions Journalism Network and former executive editor of American Lawyer; and Topher Sanders, ProPublica. Wren Longno served as Administrator of this year’s awards.
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An international leader in educating for justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York is a Hispanic Serving Institution and Minority Serving Institution offering a rich liberal arts and professional studies curriculum to 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students from more than 135 nations. John Jay is home to faculty and research centers at the forefront of advancing criminal and social justice reform. In teaching, scholarship and research, the College engages the theme of justice and explores fundamental human desires for fairness, equality and the rule of law. For more information, visit www.jjay.cuny.edu and follow us on Twitter @JohnJayCollege.
THE HARRY FRANK GUGGENHEIM FOUNDATION
The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation is a global leader in creating and disseminating knowledge on the nature, consequences, and reduction of violence in its many forms, including war, crime, and human aggression. For more information, visit HFG.org.