This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: The Marshall Project highlights seven states where criminal justice reform will be on the ballot next week, from Oklahoma – where voters will weigh a ballot initiative to prohibit sentence enhancements for most nonviolent crimes – to Oregon, which could become the first state in the country to decriminalize drugs like heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine. A piece from the New York Times also focuses on Oregon and the “shifting ballot debate on legalizing drugs.” Oregon’s hard-drug decriminalization measure, if passed, would be one of the most radical drug-law overhauls in US history; but other states are also stepping into new terrain, with legal marijuana on the ballot in Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, and South Dakota. Proponents say the “swirling, transformational forces of 2020” have changed the political landscape around legalization even in deeply conservative states. A piece from The Nation focuses on Oklahoma’s upcoming referendum on sentencing reform. In 2016, Oklahoma, dubbed “the world’s prison capital,” had the highest per capita incarceration rate in the US. Since then, the state has made significant progress towards reducing its prison population, and a ballot initiative that voters will consider next week could further reduce sentences for people convicted of certain nonviolent crimes. But the measure is facing opposition because some domestic violence crimes are erroneously classified as “nonviolent.” As domestic abuse survivors and advocates reckon with their own reliance on prisons and police, the debate in Oklahoma reflects both deeper schisms within the anti-violence community and a larger national divide over criminal justice reform. And a piece from Bloomberg CityLab focuses specifically on police reform, outlining a range of ballot proposals in cities and states around the country that could strengthen police oversight, increase accountability, reduce law enforcement resources, and fund social service alternatives to police.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from The Marshall Project focuses on racial disparities in crime reporting, highlighting the relationship between “newsworthiness” and race. In a newly published study, sociology researchers gathered all the mainstream print and digital news reports about all the murders in Chicago during 2016. They found that homicides in predominantly Black neighborhoods received significantly less coverage than those in predominantly white neighborhoods, and that coverage of murders in Black areas was less likely to portray victims as complex human beings. It’s reflective, the authors say, of “a sense that violence is routine and expected in certain areas, and tragic and newsworthy in others.” A ProPublica investigation reveals “how cops who use force and even kill can hide their names from the public.” In recent years, 12 states have passed some version of “Marsy’s Law,” created to help crime victims by, among other things, shielding their names in public records. Intended to protect victims and their families from harassment, the law is now being invoked by law enforcement agencies to keep officers’ names hidden after they use force, sometimes under questionable circumstances. And a new report from Reuters asks whether COVID-19 could put a dent in mass incarceration. A survey of jails and state prisons around the country found that their population plunged by more than 170,000 this spring, amid unprecedented mass releases aimed at containing the disease. While some counties have since begun refilling their jails and reverting to old policies, others are considering keeping temporary reforms, such as booking restrictions or limits on commercial bail, in place. America has, by far, the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world; now, with tens of thousands suddenly freed or diverted from entering jail, some governments see COVID-19 as a chance to change the policies that led so many to be locked up in the first place.
In complex crime storytelling: Pieces from Slate and The Marshall Project explore public opinion behind bars on the presidential race, policing, and criminal justice reform. In a survey of nearly 2,400 prisoners incarcerated across 12 states, respondents showed significantly higher support than the general public for the Black Lives Matter movement and its demands. When asked what services or policy interventions might have kept them out of jail, respondents pointed to mental healthcare, affordable housing, and a living wage – and expressed strong support, across lines of race and political affiliation, for police “defund” initiatives that would help finance such programs. And, in a piece for The Guardian, two incarcerated journalists at San Quentin recount their experience of holding a mock election behind bars. When corrections officials seized 1,600 mock ballots sent by the nonprofit Solitary Watch, organizers were forced to improvise, with handmade ballots scrawled in pen on scraps of notebook paper. Voting took place in the 90-minute periods, every other day, when inmates are let out of their cells to shower or make phone calls. In California, where even people on parole cannot vote, the mock election offered inmates – many of whom have spent decades behind bars and never got the chance to cast a real ballot – an opportunity to make their voices heard.
And in culture/true crime: The New York Review of Books interviews artist and filmmaker Garrett Bradley, whose Sundance-awarded documentaryon the effects of the carceral system, Time, is now streaming on Amazon. The New Yorker revisits the 1972 documentary Red Squad, an investigation of the NYPD’s crackdown on Vietnam War protesters in the early 1970s. And the New York Times reviews “1 Million Roses for Angela Davis,” a new exhibition at the Lipsiusbau museum in Dresden. The show looks back to the early 1970s, when the philosopher and Black liberation activist – then awaiting trial on murder charges in a California jail – became an unlikely cult hero behind the Iron Curtain.