On the criminal justice policy front: The New York Times reports that last weekend, a federal judge in Florida delivered a significant win in the state’s ongoing battle over felony disenfranchisement, striking down a controversial law that severely restricted voting rights for people with serious criminal convictions. The law, enacted in 2018 by a Republican-controlled state legislature, required convicted felons to settle their financial obligations to the court before having their voting eligibility restored. With court debts often totaling in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, and with no system in place for paying, this restriction rendered a majority of Florida’s convicted felons completely unable to vote; Slate offers insight into a “chaotic nightmare” of logistical hurdles and bureaucratic red tape. On Sunday, Judge Robert Hinkle of the US District Court in Tallahassee ruled the law unconstitutional, declaring that the requirement amounted to a de facto poll tax and discriminated against those who could not afford to pay. The Miami Herald breaks down five main takeaways from Judge Hinkle’s “game-changing” ruling. And a piece from USA Today focuses on the ongoing coronavirus crisis in America’s prisons and jails as a “lesson in humanity.” Historically, the American public – and our justice system – have not held much sympathy for incarcerated people. But during the pandemic, the human costs of mass incarceration have become impossible to ignore, with a spate of recent horror stories amplifying bipartisan calls for decarceration and reform. This moment offers a poignant opportunity to change the terms of the discussion about incarceration – by recognizing and restoring the humanity that incarcerated people are so often denied.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A ProPublica investigation reveals that even as the Justice Department publicly announced plans to expedite the release of prisoners to limit the spread of COVID-19, the agency was quietly adopting a policy that made it harder, not easier, for inmates to qualify for release. The result has been that while a handful of well-connected celebrity prisoners are granted home detention, more than 98% of America’s 166,000 federal inmates remain behind bars. And a piece from the Washington Post focuses on Andrea Circle Bear, the first female inmate in the federal system to die of COVID-19. In March, with the pandemic in full swing, the BOP transferred Andrea, then eight months pregnant, from South Dakota to a medical facility in Texas. At some point during the trip, she contracted the virus and became very sick; she was put on a ventilator, had her baby prematurely, and died at the end of April. As Andrea’s condition worsened, her family was left in the dark: the BOP didn’t contact them until after she had died. The piece, written by Andrea’s grandmother, calls on lawmakers to hold the BOP accountable for her granddaughter’s death.
In complex crime storytelling: This week, two separate incidents, twelve hours and twelve hundred miles apart, sparked widespread protests amid a contentious national debate over police brutality, racial injustice, and the criminalization of black Americans. The New York Times reports from Minneapolis, where George Floyd, an unarmed black man, died in police custody on Monday. Graphic video of Floyd’s violent arrest shows a white officer kneeling on his neck, pinning him down as he repeatedly pleas, “I can’t breathe.” The video, captured by a bystander and widely circulated online, triggered protests across the country and launched a federal civil rights investigation into the Minneapolis PD. Meanwhile, Vox covers another disturbing, racially charged altercation – albeit a far less serious one – that also made headlines this week. When Christian Cooper, a black man who was bird-watching in New York City’s Central Park, politely asked a white woman to leash her dog, she responded by threatening to call 911. Cooper, filming on his cellphone, recorded the woman warning, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.” On Monday, Cooper’s video went viral, sparking widespread outrage – especially after news emerged of George Floyd’s death earlier the same day.
A piece from the New York Times highlights the importance of bystander videos, which played a critical role in generating public attention and outcry around both Cooper’s story and George Floyd’s. In a piece for the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb reflects on these two incidents, which have “taken on the appearance of the control and the variable in a grotesque experiment about race in America.” And a piece from New York Magazine examines the state of policing, America’s “most resilient institution,” during the pandemic. With crime rates plummeting as American life retreats indoors, national circumstances would seem to support a vastly diminished role for the police. But the “worst excesses of law enforcement remain ever present in the interactions that still take place,” from social-distance policing that disproportionately targets people of color to George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white officer. The piece questions why, in the midst of a prolonged national crisis that has tested and shaken even our most vital institutions, law enforcement has remained so resilient – and so stubbornly resistant to change.
And in culture/true crime: The Los Angeles Times reviews “All Day and a Night,” a new feature-length drama from Netflix. The film portrays a young black man struggling to break free from the multigenerational cycle of systemic poverty, trauma, and abuse that landed his father in prison. And the New Republic reviews “AKA Jane Roe,” an FX documentary about Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff made famous as “Jane Roe” in the landmark abortion-rights case Roe v. Wade. In the early ‘70s, “Jane” rose to national prominence as an indelible symbol of the movement for reproductive rights. But when courts make general rulings based on individual cases, they “cut a story out of a person’s life, make a law out of it, and then leave the pieces on the floor”; even as “Jane” became a lightning rod for one of the most divisive political issues in recent American history, Norma herself was obscured. “AKA Jane Roe” seeks to give McCorvey the last word in a conversation she was largely shut out of, and to paint a picture of the real, three-dimensional person behind a landmark legal case.