This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: The Washington Post reports that this week, two bills to abolish the death penalty in Virginia won final approval in the state General Assembly. Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to sign both bills, making Virginia – historically one of the nation’s most prolific death penalty states – the first in the South to abandon capital punishment. The New York Times reports from Illinois, which, earlier this week, became the first state in the country to eliminate cash bail. The change is part of a sweeping criminal justice reform law signed Monday by Gov. JB Pritzker, which he said would “would transform the state’s legal system and increase accountability measures for police officers, such as requiring the use of body-worn cameras by police departments statewide.” On the national level, CNN reports that this week, House Democrats reintroduced policing legislation named in honor of George Floyd, whose death in police custody last year sparked nationwide calls to address police misconduct and racial injustice. The bill – titled the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 – includes provisions to overhaul qualified immunity for law enforcement, prohibitions on racial profiling, and a federal ban on chokeholds. The House is expected to vote on this proposal as soon as next week. And a piece from GQ focuses on Ithaca, New York, and perhaps the “most ambitious effort yet” to reform law enforcement. This week, Ithaca’s mayor, Svante Myrick, announced a plan to abolish its police department as currently constructed and replace it with a reimagined city agency. The new department would include both armed “public safety workers” and unarmed “community solution workers,” all of whom will report to a civilian director of public safety instead of a police chief. If approved, the plan would constitute “the most radical reimagining of policing in the post-George Floyd era so far.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from The Atlantic focuses on immigration reform. Since taking office, President Biden has moved to dismantle some of Trump’s nastiest immigration policies, lifting the so-called Muslim ban, halting construction of a wasteful border wall, and launching a task force to reunite separated migrant families. This week, he proposed reform legislation that, if enacted, would give undocumented immigrants now in the US a route to becoming citizens. But now, as the Mexico-US border comes under renewed stress, the new administration faces an uphill battle in fixing the mess Trump left behind. A piece from the New York Review of Books goes inside “America’s hidden gulag.” In recent years, numerous counties across the US – mostly in rural areas or smaller regional cities – have expanded or rebuilt their local jails. This “jail boom,” fueled in part by federal policies, has benefitted federal agencies like ICE and the US Marshals Service, which use space in county jails to detain immigrants, people seeking asylum, and those in pre-trial federal custody. The piece explores this relationship between federal agencies and county jails, which, over the last four decades, has driven both mass incarceration and anti-immigrant policy across the rural US.
Other pieces this week focus on Texas, where a once-in-a-generation snowstorm, combined with a major failure of the state’s electrical grid, have worsened already-dire conditions within prisons and jails. The Marshall Project reports that as temperatures dipped into the single-digits, prisoners across the state were left without power, heat, or running water, in conditions they described as increasingly inhumane. And a piece from Mother Jones goes inside downtown Houston’s Harris County Jail, where incarcerated people and their loved ones are reporting brutal cold, scarce drinking water, backed-up toilets, and inedible food. In a facility already devastated by COVID-19, inmates say the crises keep piling up: “We were thinking, ‘it can’t get any worse.’ But clearly, it could get worse and it has.”
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from the New Republic tracks “the rise and fall of the L. Brent Bozells.” In the 1950s and ‘60s, L. Brent Bozell, Jr., the son of a prominent Nebraska businessman, helped launch the National Review brand of reactionary movement conservatism, with the admonition to stand “athwart history, yelling stop.” Half a century later, his grandson, L. Brent Bozell IV, would take part in an attempted insurrection at the US Capitol. The piece traces four generations of one American family as a “synecdoche of the decline of the conservative movement.” A piece from the Atlantic goes “inside the strange world of the police.” In 1994, in the wake of the Rodney King riots, a journalist and a photographer were invited to embed with the LAPD. Three decades later, they reflect on lessons learned from their time with the department – and on how little policing has changed. And a piece from ProPublica revisits the unsolved 1963 killing of a prominent Black politician and “the murder Chicago didn’t want to solve.” In February 1963, Ben Lewis’s star was on the rise. The first Black elected official from Chicago’s West Side, Lewis had just won what was set to be his second full term on the City Council. Rumor had it that his next stop would be Congress, a move that would have made him one of the highest-profile Black politicians in the country. Then Lewis was found shot to death in his ward office. Clues suggested the murder was a professional hit, fueling speculation that police may have been involved. But the investigation soon went cold, and nearly six decades later, no one has been brought to justice for Lewis’s death.
In culture/true crime: A piece from IndieWire highlights two new true-crime-adjacent documentaries: HBO’s Allen v. Farrow and The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears. The first is an in-depth look at the sexual assault accusations made against Woody Allen by his daughter, Dylan Farrow; while the second chronicles Britney Spears’ rise to fame as a teen pop star, her sudden fall and much-publicized setbacks, including an ongoing legal battle over the conservatorship Spears has been under since 2008. Both films revisit and bring to light decades-old cases of abuse, in which the legal system failed to protect the vulnerable young victims of powerful older men. In this way, both projects – part of a recent surge of post-#MeToo documentaries – attempt to right the wrongs of the not-so-distant past, offering “cultural justice” where the criminal justice system has fallen short. NPR reviews Two Truths and a Lie, the new true-crime book by journalist Ellen McGarrahan. In 1990, McGarrahan, then a young beat reporter for the Miami Herald, witnessed a botched execution. At the time, she reported on the case and the executed man – a convicted murderer – by relying on, as she says, “the state’s version of events as the truth.” Two Truths and a Lie delves deep into McGarrahan’s more than two-decade-long odyssey to rectify that mistake. And a piece from Slate focuses on Netflix’s true crime boom and the new docuseries Crime Scene. Over the past decade, true crime has exploded into the cultural mainstream, from podcasts and YouTube to traditional print media; and Netflix has unleashed a seemingly endless stream of true crime shows to meet that nearly bottomless demand. But in feeding, and stoking, that appetite, “Netflix’s true crime tsunami risks sweeping away the frameworks that true crime authors and fans have spent decades building, and stripping away a layer of respectability that the long-disreputable genre has only recently acquired.”