The public’s perception of crime is often significantly out of alignment with the reality. This is caused, in part, by frequently sensationalist, decontextualized media coverage. Media Frame seeks to critique journalism on issues of policing and prisons, challenge the standard media formulas for crime coverage, and push media to radically rethink how they inform the public on matters of public safety.
A recent New York Times article serves as a powerful example of how crime stories—specifically those that focus on one-off cases of someone freed from prison who commits more crime—can drive a Willie Horton-style narrative about a revolving-door prison system. Such stories also give the reader the false impression that there’s an endemic problem with our legal system of being soft on crime.
The article centers on Albert Flick, a 77-year-old who was recently convicted of the 2018 murder of Kimberly Dobbie. Forty years ago, he was convicted of murdering his wife and spent more than two decades in prison for her murder. Flick had other convictions in between, including assault in 2007 and 2010.
The substance of the report, written by Adeel Hassan, is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.
First off, it’s apparent Flick has a history of violence against women, and it’s more than reasonable to ask if his specific case was handled properly by authorites. As The Appeal has shown, the police routinely overlook and belittle violence leveled against women. But the piece doesn’t even meaningfully address this problem. It doesn’t show how pervasive sexism in the justice system might have led to the police downplaying the risk Flick posed, or include interviews with experts about whether aspects of the case went against protocol. The reader is left with the vague idea that something was amiss, but nothing specific is cited.
Second, the article does not acknowledge that Flick’s case—that of an elderly man twice convicted of murder—is exceedingly rare. Without this context, the average reader leaves with the mistaken impression that the American criminal legal system in general—and that of the state of Maine in particular—is somehow too soft on crime committed by older adults.
Studies show quite the opposite. The U.S. prison and jail population is “graying” at an alarming rate, and older people pose relatively little risk. In 2017, those over 75 committed 92 murders out of 11,472 where the perpetrator’s age was known. The likelihood that one will commit murder drops precipitously after age 50. And the likelihood that someone who has committed murder will commit another? Even rarer.
For her 2012 book “Life After Murder,” journalist Nancy Mullane studied recividism rates of those convicted of murder in California over a 20-year period. She found that out of 988 convicted murderers who were released from state prison, just 1 percent were arrested for new crimes, and 10 percent were arrested for violating parole. None of the 988 were rearrested for murder, and none went back to prison over the 20-year period she examined.
“That’s the lowest recidivism rate. That’s unheard of,” Mullane told CBS News. “In 20 years, the chance of you being returned on another murder was zero.”
Excessive prison sentences, handed out at the height of the war on crime, mean our prisons are filled with aging people who generally do not pose a danger. By 2030, 1 in 3 people in prison will be 50 or older, “a staggering 4,400 percent increase over a fifty-year span,’” according to the Osborne Association, a New York-based nonprofit.
Third, the violence of prison itself—which is uniquely harsh on those over the age of 55—is simply not factored into the equation. A 2008 study found that older men in prison had health outcomes that were statistically equivalent to those of men on the outside who were 15 years older. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report found that prison was “particularly challenging for the growing number of older prisoners who are frail, have mobility, hearing, and vision impairments, and are suffering chronic, disabling, and terminal illnesses or diminishing cognitive capacities.” The report also notes that prisons and their rules “were created with younger inmates in mind, and they can pose special hardships for those who are well on in years.”
Stories about people released from prison or jail who go on to commit heinous crimes play into false perceptions of the legal system, and can make early release reforms for older prisoners that much more difficult to achieve. This trope, especially when racialized, can be viewed as a “Willie Horton-style attack”—mimicking the now infamous 1988 George H.W. Bush PAC presidential campaign ad that highlighted the one-off case of a Black Massachusetts man committing assault, armed robbery, and rape while out on a furlough program at the time that Bush’s Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, served as the state’s governor.
The facts of Horton’s case weren’t all that different from Flick’s: Horton had a violent history, and it’s true he was let out of prison. It’s also true he committed heinous acts after he was released. But selectively highlighting his case—and the implications of that selectivity—paint an incorrect picture that the prison system in the late 1980s was unduly soft on violent criminals, which couldn’t be further from the truth: Between 1980 and 1990, the number of people incarcerated in Massachusetts prisons and jails jumped 166 percent, to 22,896 from 8,591.
Just the same, a national newspaper highlighting a story in Maine about a violent killer incapable of reform carries with it obvious implications—namely that eldery people should rot away in prison so long as there’s a fraction of a chance they’ll recommit crime.
As I noted in an Appeal piece last month that criticized media coverage of reformist district attorneys, there’s always a risk with any criminal system reform. The only way of guaranteeing no one commits any crime ever is by locking up everyone in prison forever. There’s nothing wrong with the New York Times raising hard questions about how the system may have failed the Dobbie family, but essential context is necessary when the most popular English-language newspaper in the world decides to highlight one of the almost 17,000 murders per year.
Our criminal system is overwhelmingly severe, and our prison population is full of older adults waiting to die. Pointing out that cases like Flick’s are the exception, not the rule, would go a long way in undermining false assumptions about a revolving-door legal system that simply doesn’t exist.