This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: This week, the coronavirus pandemic has continued to dominate criminal justice-related news, as leaders around the country escalate or expedite reforms aimed at slowing the virus’s spread. A piece from the Guardian highlights the “previously unthinkable” reforms made possible by the pandemic, from releasing inmates to ending cash bail: proof that “dismantling mass incarceration in the United States is not a question of possibility or costs, but a matter of imagination and will.” Politico reports that on Monday, Attorney General Bill Barr issued a memo to top federal prosecutors around the country, urging them to consider the risks inherent in increasing the jail population as the virus continues to spread. And the Sacramento Bee reports that California court leaders have voted to temporarily end cash bail for suspected low-level offenders. The order, which takes effect April 13, sets bail at $0 for most misdemeanor and lower-level felonies. Meanwhile, a piece from the New Republic focuses on New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo has quietly rolled back significant portions of the state’s controversial bail reform law. Last week, Governor Cuomo pushed through a budget that included his criminal justice agenda, under threat of a government shutdown – including the Department of Health. The new budget significantly scaled back money bail reform, ensuring that Rikers Island, along with other jails and prisons across the state, “would remain filled with people too poor to purchase their release, unable to take the precautions the governor reminded viewers of each day.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from the Atlantic focuses on California, where emergency measures related to COVID-19 have scaled back the rights of criminal defendants. New York Magazine goes inside New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex, home to one of the most concentrated coronavirus outbreaks in the world. Inmates there describe unsafe and unsanitary conditions, a lack of effective medical care, and a widespread mood of “barely checked panic” as the virus continues to spread. A piece from the Intercept looks at Louisiana, which has both the highest incarceration rate in the country and one of the worst virus outbreaks. Rather than releasing people, officials there plan to isolate those who test positive for the virus in two maximum-security state facilities – a plan that critics say amounts to creating “death camps.” And NPR goes inside the Federal Correctional Complex in Oakdale, Louisiana, one of the hardest-hit federal prisons in the country, where five inmates have already died and others describe living in a state of constant fear.
In complex crime storytelling: Texas Monthly focuses on the case of Rosa Jimenez, who was accused of murdering an infant she was babysitting in 2003. The case was sensationalized in the press; by the time of her trial, Jimenez had become “one of the most notorious defendants” in modern Texas history. Despite the lack of evidence against her, Jimenez was convicted and sentenced to 99 years. Jimenez has always maintained her innocence, and a number of judges and medical experts have argued for her release. Yet state officials continue to defend her conviction, and 17 years later Jimenez – who suffers from a chronic health issue and is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 – remains incarcerated in Texas. And a piece from the New York Times details how a veteran criminalist in New Hampshire successfully utilized “old school” techniques – manually plotting the details of one of the victim’s fingers – to identify human remains found more than 50 years ago.
And in culture/true crime: The New Yorker interviews John Springs, a pulp-fiction novelist incarcerated on Rikers Island during the pandemic. New York Times reporters share the true crime stories that have stuck with them over the years. And New Yorker critic Doreen St. Félix explores the culture’s fascination with “Tiger King,” the new true-crime series from Netflix.