Looking back on 2018
This year was not short on big news stories, including those about the courts and justice systems. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy retired and Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to replace him. We explored what Kavanaugh’s nomination would mean for criminal justice and what Kennedy’s departure meant for challenges to the torture of solitary confinement. After the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh came to light, many expressed discomfort with the idea of a teenager’s actions condemning him for life, revealing a blindness to how our criminal legal system actually operates. After a confirmation process that failed to meaningfully grapple with the accusations against him, Kavanaugh raged about how he was treated. We hoped his sense of grievance would translate into an appreciation of the ordeal that people accused of crimes go through.
The Trump administration brought America’s treatment of immigrants to a new low in many ways, including by ushering in a policy of family separation—a policy notable for its disregard for the humanity of children and families crossing the border but also in line with the long history of separation of parents and children in the criminal legal system. Pardons emerged as a tool of resistance to the deportation machinery. After a tenure marked by contempt for the human and civil rights of immigrants, victims of police abuse, and people of color, Jeff Sessions resigned as attorney general. Criminal justice and immigrant advocates might have cheered, but for his final attempt to gut police reform, and President Trump’s nomination of William Barr as his replacement. The First Step Act, which advances very modest reform and relies on problematic risk-assessment tools, was was signed into law by Trump today.
There was also a multitude of important state and local stories—some that pointed toward progress in dismantling mass incarceration and others that showed how much work remains to be done. And while many did not make national headlines, they either signalled trends toward reform or highlighted the injustices of our systems of mass incarceration. While there are too many to summarize, here are a few of the stories and issues we explored.
Alabama ‘beach house sheriff’ pocketed money meant for meals for people in jail: Over three years, Sheriff Todd Entrekin of Etowah County took $750,000 from a source he called “Food Provisions” and used it to buy a $740,000 house. Under the law, what he did was legal. In the November elections, two Alabama counties voted to end the practice of sheriffs keeping money allocated to feed people in jail. Etowah County was not one of them.
Parole for Herman Bell and a backlash: It has become increasingly clear that significantly reducing the country’s prison population is only possible if we revisit decades-long or life sentences for people convicted of violent offenses. In March, the New York State Parole Board granted the release on parole of 70-year old Herman Bell. Bell was incarcerated for 44 years for the 1971 killing of two police officers. His release was consistent with the board’s recently-adopted rules and the law, and with, as Bruce Western and Bernard Harcourt wrote shortly after, “a belief that debts can be paid, and those who have caused terrible pain to others, like Bell, are nevertheless worthy of redemption.” The backlash was predictable from some quarters (the police union) and deeply troubling from others (New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio).
In coal country, opposition to a toxic prison: Plans to build a federal prison in Letcher County, Kentucky, were approved in late March. The project has powerful congressional backers, but also faced sustained local opposition. The plans moved ahead despite concerns about the environmental and health consequences of so-called toxic prisons—in this case, one built on a mountaintop coal removal site. It is now the subject of a federal lawsuit brought by the 21 incarcerated people represented by the Abolitionist Law Center. There is still strong local opposition. One challenged the claim that prisons drive economic growth, telling Courthouse News: “If prisons were good economic development for rural America, rural America would be doing better.”
How local crime reporting promotes law enforcement narratives: An article in Popula described how local crime reporting “skews heavily toward the narratives of police and prosecutors.” Adopting law enforcement narratives can feed into readers’ worst instincts and can reflect bias, given that newsrooms remain overwhelmingly white. Hunter Pauli reflected on his time as the lone crime reporter at a daily paper in Butte, Montana. “I found the process for deciding which poor residents of my city to shame completely arbitrary,” he writes. And the permanent shaming—a person’s contacts with the criminal legal system then become the first results in any web search—has no upside. “No one becomes a more informed member of their community after 30 seconds spent reading a story about a homeless woman who shoplifted meat,” Pauli pointed out. This week, the editor of the Mississippi Sun Herald, Blake Kaplan, wrote directly to readers explaining why the publication will now cover crime differently.“What is good for us may not be what is good for South Mississippi,” he said.
Accountability in Chicago over Laquan McDonald’s killing: Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder for the killing of 17-year old Laquan McDonald in 2014. The city’s efforts to conceal video of the shooting rocked Chicago and led to seismic political consequences, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s announcement that he will not seek re-election next year. In October, nearly four years after the shooting, Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder, an unprecedented conviction for a Chicago police officer. The trial of three of the officers who covered up Van Dyke’s actions concluded before a judge in early December. The judge has said she will announce her verdict Jan. 15.
And, finally, the elections: Blue wave aside, there was a tide of criminal justice victories on Nov. 6. With the Appeal: Political Report, we previewed many of the most significant local and state races, through special editions on attorney general races, law enforcement races, and ballot initiatives. In the Political Report, Daniel Nichanian highlighted the significance of North Carolina sheriffs’ decisions to withdraw from ICE’s 287(g) program and end cooperation with the agency. Rachael Rollins, who won her race for Suffolk County, Massachusetts, district attorney, announced a plan to stop prosecuting 15 low-level offenses. Wesley Bell ran as a reformer in St. Louis and unseated seven-term incumbent Robert McCullough.