This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: A piece from the Washington Post highlights political battles across the country over vaccinating inmates against COVID-19. In crafting states’ coronavirus vaccination plans, public health officials have repeatedly emphasized the importance of neutralizing prisons and jails, which disproportionately hold people of color and have reported some of the most virulent outbreaks. In several states, including Washington and New Jersey, vaccinations in prisons and jails have already begun. But elsewhere, like in Colorado – where, last month, Gov. Jared Polis publicly backtracked on his own health department’s vaccination plan, which put incarcerated people in line for immunization ahead of the elderly and those with chronic conditions – the early vaccination of inmates has proved a tough political sell. The episode illustrates “how a system of preferences geared to stop the virus where it is most destructive may clash with other values in a nation that incarcerates more people than does any other.” A piece from the Texas Tribune centers on a “human experiment” in criminal jury trials. After months on hold due to the pandemic, jury trials have recently resumed in some Texas counties, posing serious health risks for those involved even as a backlog of cases continues to pile up that will take the state years to overcome. The Detroit News highlights good news for criminal justice reform in Michigan, where, earlier this week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law a slate of bills lightening penalties for traffic violations and other non-violent offenses and decreasing mandatory time periods for probation and parole. And the Seattle Times reports from Washington, where the state Supreme Court will soon hear a case that could potentially free dozens of three-strikes prisoners. The first state in the nation to adopt such a law, Washington has been slower than many others in revisiting three strikes. Black people, representing about 4% of Washington’s population, account for nearly 40% of three-strikes prisoners sentenced in the state. A central question in the case at hand is whether “evolving standards of decency” warrant a retroactive application of new and less harsh sentencing laws.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: The New York Times reports that on Wednesday, the country looked on in shock as a pro-Trump protest in Washington, DC, spiraled into an unprecedented and protracted sacking of the Capitol. Americans watching on TV saw rioters, some armed, some waving Confederate flags, bursting through barricades, pepper-spraying Capitol police, smashing windows, and ransacking offices – without obvious consequence. Surreal images show Capitol Police struggling to contain the violence, cowering from rioters and sometimes simply retreating as the mob descended on the Capitol. Ultimately, it took more than two hours, and reinforcements from other law enforcement agencies, before order was restored. Pieces from the Daily Beast and the Washington Post highlight the failures of Capitol Police to adequately prepare for and effectively respond to the violence, which had been predicted months in advance. Police’s “kid glove treatment” of the white, pro-Trump mob was especially striking in contrast with the “strong-arm tactics” used against Black Lives Matter demonstrations earlier this year, many of which saw peaceful protesters brutalized by batons, rubber bullets, and tear gas. Pieces from Politico and New York Magazine highlight the racial contradictions of Trump’s “law and order” mantra; as Rep. Cori Bush, a veteran of BLM protests in Ferguson, Missouri, told MSNBC, “Had it been people who looked like me… we wouldn’t have made it up those steps.” And, in a piece for the New Republic, Melissa Gira Grant describes the scene at the Capitol not as an insurrection, but an “alliance”: “Again, we were reminded that the designation of a peaceful protest is one made by law enforcement and the state. There’s no question of keeping the peace, really, when there’s only one side.”
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from the New York Times offers an up-close, in-depth view on Wednesday’s riot at the Capitol. The mostly white, pro-Trump mob included infamous white nationalists and noted conspiracy theorists, but also state lawmakers, off-duty police officers, and hard-core supporters of the president, who had journeyed to DC from around the country to protest the certification of Biden’s win. The piece describes a “confused and frenzied energy” as the crowds breached the Capitol, a sense of “bewildered wonder” amplified by the almost complete lack of police presence. At one point, a small group looking for Sen. Chuck Schumer’s office found themselves lost; one man told the Times they “asked a Capitol Police officer, who tried to direct them. But they appeared to have gotten nowhere near the minority’s leader’s office. They ended up smoking a few cigarettes inside the building… and one of his friends, who would not give his name, joked that he had gone to the bathroom and not flushed.” And a piece from Mother Jones explores the strange, dark world of “challenge coins,” the “dirty currency” of the warrior cop. Official challenge coins – collectible, silver dollar-sized medallions, historically presented by military or law enforcement leaders to build camaraderie and morale within their units – tend to be shiny and inoffensive. But unofficial challenge coins often celebrate cops behaving badly, commemorating “blue flu” walkouts, officer-involved shootings, and the riot squads that responded to Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year. These coins embrace the “unpolished side of the ‘warrior cop’ ethos – the violence, racism, and impunity that have sparked our current reckoning with American police culture.”
In culture/true crime: “Scenes From an American Insurrection,” a photo story from The Atlantic, goes inside the chaos at the Capitol. Surreal images – rioters scaling the walls of the Capitol building; a Trump-hatted insurrectionist smiling and waving to the camera as he makes off with a lectern – capture this “American coup attempt, a scene unlike any other witnessed in recent US history.” IndyWeek highlights Decarcerate NC Now: Let Our People Go, a mini-documentary about the fight for decarceration in North Carolina. From Election Day to January 1 – the beginning of Gov. Roy Cooper’s second term – a small group of demonstrators camped out outside the Executive Mansion in Raleigh, standing in rain-or-shine solidarity with the more than 30,000 people, most of them Black, who are incarcerated inside state prisons. On December 17, the governor’s office announced pardons for five men, including Ronnie Long, who spent more than four decades behind bars for a crime he did not commit. The film documents the 58-day vigil, capturing the moments of celebration as Long learns the news: a “moving testament to the tireless fight for decarceration.” CBS News goes inside the story of how Curtis Flowers, a Black man from Mississippi who spent nearly half his life in prison after being tried six times for the same crime by the same prosecutor, was saved from death row. Today, Curtis Flowers is a free man, thanks largely to the investigative reporters behind the podcast “In the Dark.”