Journalism drives justice reform. It is also collapsing.
This week, the NYPD agreed to stop making arrests for possession of THC oil, the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana. Possessing a vape pen with THC oil will now be treated like possessing a joint––with a ticket. (Police will go forward with criminal charges if the vape pen oil is found to contain the same chemicals as K2, an illegal synthetic drug.) The NYPD’s actions are in response to criticism from City Councilmember Rory Lancman, who has chastised the department for arresting people for possession of THC oil, even as it decriminalizes low-level marijuana possession. [Graham Rayman / New York Daily News]
Lancman was spurred to speak up by an article that appeared last year in The Appeal, which pointed out an absurd policy loophole: At a time when the NYPD had announced it would stop arresting most people caught smoking or possessing marijuana in public, it was arresting people caught vaping marijuana oil and slapping them with the same charge as for low-level heroin possession. And The Appeal had learned from public defenders in Brooklyn that even though the district attorney had said the office would stop prosecuting low-level marijuana cases, it had gone forward with at least 22 THC oil cases in recent months. “Raven Rakia’s reporting in The Appeal was the driving force behind getting the NYPD to stop arresting individuals for THC oil possession, and treat these cases the same as marijuana,” Lancman told the Daily Appeal by email. “Great journalism can lead to important progress, and Raven’s work is a prime example of that.”
Across the country, local journalism is collapsing. Journalists are laid off in droves, and outlets are shutting their doors. This is bad news for journalists, bad news for democracy, and bad news specifically for criminal justice reform, because policymakers rely on reporters, especially local reporters, to expose loopholes, uncover wrongdoing, and catch unintended oversights. This is particularly true in criminal justice, where those who bear the burdens are often disbelieved and disregarded. From big investigations to individual case studies, the coverage is crucial, and often influential. In places where there are no reporters who are paid to root out these problems, we simply don’t know what kind of corruption, mismanagement, cruelty, and simple mistakes are happening, but we can assume that they are.
In the South Carolina statehouse last month, state Representative Alan Clemmons stepped to a lectern and announced what he called a historic event to a large bipartisan group of legislators. He announced a bill backed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the legislator group that promotes conservative policies across the country, that would effectively get rid of civil asset forfeiture in the state. Asset forfeiture is a practice that allows law enforcement to seize property from residents, sometimes without charging them with or convicting them of a crime, and then profit from the proceeds. “I know some of you are saying, ‘Oh my god, has hell frozen over? Cobb-Hunter is supporting something that ALEC is supporting,” said Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democrat and the president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. “Wonders never cease. It’s a great day in South Carolina.” [Nathaniel Cary / Greenville News]
How did this happen? Many credit TAKEN, a two-year extensive investigation by the Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail. The TAKEN team documented every civil asset forfeiture case from 2014 to 2016 in the state—more than 3,200 cases involving more than 4,000 people—to show police had seized more than $17 million from people, the overwhelming majority of whom were young Black men. Most of the cash ended up in the hands of police, which reform advocates said created an incentive for police to seek profit from forfeiture. Even police officers agreed. The executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association said that without the possibility of profit from civil forfeiture, officers probably wouldn’t do their jobs as zealously as they do now. If police don’t get to keep the money from forfeiture, he wondered, “what is the incentive to go out and make a special effort?” [Nathaniel Cary, Anna Lee, and Mike Ellis / Greenville News]
“This is exactly what we’re talking about when we talk about the free press, shining a light on something that has been swept under the rug and has been truly abused for too long,” said a Republican state representative. Another added, “The Greenville News has changed the discussion in South Carolina today regarding civil asset forfeiture.” [Steven Bruss / Greenville News]
Last year, Lauren Gill reported for The Appeal (then In Justice Today) that the Federal Bureau of Prisons was quietly introducing a pair of new policies that severely restricted access to books for incarcerated people. Most facilities were already rejecting reading materials sent from friends and family, and from small bookstores, and were only accepting those from large retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But the new rules said that even those were no longer allowed. Instead, prisoners had to submit requests to purchase books — a limit of five per order —and pay exorbitant prices, in addition to a 30 percent tax plus shipping cost. “One friend of mine bought two $4.99 books and the price ended up being $42 total,” one prisoner told The Appeal. “Plus, the books take months to arrive.” [Lauren Gill / The Appeal]
Less than a week after that article was published, federal prison officials reversed the policy. Under the rules, prisoners in at least four facilities were required to order books only through a prison-approved vendor and, at three of the prisons, to pay a 30 percent markup. The Washington Post and others had inquired about the vendor, the markup, and the rationale for the restriction. [Ann E. Marimow / Washington Post]
Perhaps no article in recent years has had as great an impact on the criminal legal system than Jennifer Gonnerman’s sensitive portrait of Kalief Browder, published in the New Yorker in 2014. Browder, “the 16-year-old who became the face of pretrial reform, was held on Rikers for three years for allegedly swiping a backpack, all the while maintaining his innocence, before prosecutors ultimately dropped the charges for lack of evidence,” Benjamin Weiser wrote for the New York Times. “Browder struggled in the aftermath of his release, and two years later killed himself.” Gonnerman’s article described how he was beaten by correction officers, held in solitary confinement for two of the three years he spent at Rikers, and endured repeated delays in the clogged Bronx court. [Benjamin Weiser / New York Times] Gonnerman put a face and a person to the systemic problems that advocates and organizers had bemoaned for years.
After a settlement was reached with Browder’s family this year, the city’s Law Department said, “Kalief Browder’s story helped inspire numerous reforms to the justice system to prevent this tragedy from ever happening again, including an end to punitive segregation for young people on Rikers Island.” It also pushed judges to be cautious when setting bail for poor defendants, spurred the mayor to develop a plan to move young prisoners off Rikers island, and even factored into President Barack Obama’s decision to ban solitary confinement for minors in federal prisons. [Benjamin Weiser / New York Times]
It has been called the “Kalief Browder effect”: a media culture that now focuses more on unjust incarceration than on sensational, outlier cases of defendants freed from jail who go on to commit further crimes. This new focus is replacing the beat reporting and mugshot publication that serve to humiliate individuals, not to inform the public. These kinds of articles set a tone that makes policy change possible. As Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute said, “To the folks around the country who are trying to change statutes, I try to emphasize that a new law works best when it’s codifying existing culture change.” [Eli Hager / Marshall Project]