This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: A piece from The Appeal outlines “14 steps Biden’s DOJ can take now to reform America’s criminal legal system,” from forensic science reform to abolishing the death penalty. A piece from Slate asks, “What can progressives learn from California eliminating cash bail?”. On March 25, the California Supreme Court issued a “blockbuster decision” invalidating the state’s cash bail system as unconstitutional. Cash bail has come under fire in the past decade, with courts invalidating cash bail systems in cities like Houston and Dallas, and other states largely doing away with the practice on their own. But California’s elimination of cash bail, the piece argues, is “a change of an entirely different order.” Slate traces this development back over a decade, following the arc of Associate Justice Leondra Kruger’s legal career from lawyer to California’s highest court – a powerful lesson about the value of judicial nominations, and a kind of case study in “why the primary architects and advocates of major civil rights reforms are such important additions to the bench.” The New York Times reports from Albany, New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed a long-awaited bill to legalize recreational marijuana. Advocates have hailed marijuana legalization efforts as an important step towards making amends for the war on drugs. While white people and Black people use marijuana at roughly equal rates, Black people are more than three times as likely to be arrested on low-level possession charges. The disparity is even worse in New York City, where Black and Hispanic people accounted for 94% of marijuana-related arrests in 2020, even though white New Yorkers report using marijuana at higher rates. Under the state’s new law, people convicted of marijuana-related offenses that are no longer criminalized will have their records automatically expunged; additionally, 40% of the tax revenue generated by legal marijuana sales will be reinvested in communities hurt most by drug arrests. As Kassandra Frederique, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told the Times this week: New York is “showing the rest of the country what comprehensive marijuana reform — centered in equity, justice and reinvestment — looks like.” And a piece from the Washington Post highlights a “natural experiment” in criminal-justice policy reform. The piece centers on a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which examined “the effects of prosecuting nonviolent misdemeanors on defendants’ future criminal legal involvement.” The study found that across the board, being more lenient on defendants – that is, erring toward non-prosecution – has big benefits: “People who are not prosecuted for misdemeanors are much less likely to find themselves in a courtroom again within two years.” These findings have critical implications, as “communities across the country are reconsidering how they handle nonviolent misdemeanors such as disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace and possession of small amounts of illicit drugs.” In many cities — including Philadelphia, Baltimore, and LA — reform-minded DAs have been elected after promising to scale back the prosecution of such offenses. But they “face pushback from police and community members who worry that not punishing people for low-level infractions will simply encourage more crime.” The study shows that on the contrary, prosecuting low-level crimes actually makes us less safe: “Entanglement with the legal system itself seems to be a risk factor for future criminal prosecution.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from the Marshall Project tackles rising crime and the 2020 “murder spike.” Last year, four people were killed within a half-square-mile tract of south Los Angeles, where Black and Hispanic residents make up over 95% of the population. In 2019, the same area saw only a single murder. Across the country, other cities followed a similar pattern last year: a spike in murders, concentrated in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Experts say a strained social safety net, rising tensions, physical proximity and mistrust between police and communities of color all played important roles in driving the increase. “The multiple crises have exposed the public health gaps and the public safety gaps that have existed for generations,” said Fernando Rejón, who heads the Urban Peace Institute. “2020 was a tinderbox.” A piece from the Columbia Journalism Review focuses on media coverage of mass shootings and the gun-control debate. The last month has brought “new rounds of horror” in America, with three highly-publicized mass shootings – in Atlanta; Boulder, Colorado; and Orange County, California – claiming 22 lives. Some media outlets portrayed the carnage as a departure from a gun-violence calm brought about by COVID lockdowns. But in reality, 2020 was the deadliest year for gun violence in two decades, with nearly 20,000 Americans killed – the vast majority people of color. If it seemed like gun violence had ebbed during the pandemic, the piece argues, “it is only because the press lost interest.” A piece from Rolling Stone also centers on mainstream media coverage of mass shootings and the victims left behind. On March 16, shootings at three greater-Atlanta-area spas claimed the lives of eight victims, including four women of Korean descent. But perhaps just as shocking as the incident itself, Rolling Stone reports, were the stark differences between Korean-language and English-language media coverage. Both Atlanta-based Korean newspapers and South Korea’s top news outlets immediately labeled the massacre as a racially-motivated hate crime, with multiple news sources reporting that the shooter was heard saying, “I’m going to kill all Asians,” as he gunned people down. By contrast, however, English-language media outlets “seemed content to take the killer at his word that his motive was a ‘sex addiction’ and that race did not play a role in his crime.” And while English-language media quickly published detailed profiles of the shooter, its coverage of the victims remained vague and often inaccurate, butchering the Asian victims’ names and even mixing up their faces. Aside from the horror of the shooting itself, these stark differences in coverage show how the othering and dehumanization that Asian Americans face is both reflected in and perpetuated by mainstream US media. And a piece from NBC News also centers on the post-mass-shooting gun-control debate. The piece focuses specifically on Boulder and Atlanta, highlighting a “stark contrast” between the two attacks in terms of both political response and news media coverage. After the shooting in Boulder, on March 22, President Biden called on Congress to ban assault weapons and close background check loopholes, while lawmakers jumped in with official statements and media appearances denouncing gun violence. But the week before, after the Atlanta-area shootings on March 16, there were “critical discussions on hate crimes, racism and misogyny – and almost none on guns and gun control.” Gun control advocates point out that racial disparities between the two shootings – all of the Boulder victims were white – likely played a role. As Amber Goodwin, founder of the Community Justice Action Fund, told NBC, the response to the Atlanta shootings – specifically, the lack of policy response – is typical for when communities of color are targeted by gun violence: “When there is a mass tragedy, there is always a policy response. When there’s violence that happens in our communities, the response is, ‘What did those people do, why were they there?’”.
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from Vanity Fair goes deep into the case of London’s “elusive, acrobatic rare-book thieves.” In the spring of 2017, more than a dozen warehouses around London were burglarized by a team of daring thieves nicknamed the “Mission: Impossible gang.” Scaling buildings in the dead of night, cutting through fiberglass skylights, and descending on wires through the holes, the thieves made off with millions of dollars in irreplaceable rare books, including early versions of some of the most significant printed works of European history. It would take more than three years; detectives from four different countries; and an international sting operation targeting some of Europe’s most notorious criminal gangs to bring the so-called Mission: Impossible thieves to justice. A piece from the Atlantic, from 2018, recounts the wild true tale of Jimmy Galante, “the mobster who bought his son a hockey team.” Galante’s story has been described as “right out of ‘The Sopranos’”: born and raised in the Bronx, New York, he got his start driving a garbage truck. In the mid-to-late 1970s, Galante relocated to Danbury, Connecticut, and started his own company; by 2004, he’d built it into a “trash-collection empire” valued at about $100 million. Though he had long been suspected of mob ties, Galante was smart, and “the G-men could never quite nail him.” His one weakness, though, was his penchant for elaborate, attention-getting gestures. In 2004, Galante purchased a minor-league-hockey franchise, installed it at the local youth rink, and appointed his hockey-obsessed teenage son, AJ, the team’s general manager. The story of the Danbury Trashers – “The Sopranos” meets “Slap Shot” – would end in an FBI raid and subsequent indictment that landed Galante in federal prison on more than 70 counts of racketeering, witness tampering, and extortion. And, in a piece for the New York Times Magazine, incarcerated writer John J. Lennon details his own “COVID lockdown story.” Thirteen months after inmates at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in upstate New York began to test positive for COVID-19, Lennon writes, there is still little or no social distancing, few masks, and plenty of misinformation about the virus and vaccines. But there are also small acts of grace and empathy among those incarcerated, moments of human compassion that break through the stagnancy of prison life: “As COVID-19 swept through Sullivan,” Lennon writes, “it was this, not some distant prospect of mercy from the state, that gave this murderer hope.”
In culture/true crime: The New York Times highlights three new books about the shortfalls of America’s criminal justice system. In Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration,sociologist Reuben Miller explores the “inescapability of prison” and the challenges of navigating life as a returning citizen. How Rights Went Wrong: Why Our Obsession With Rights Is Tearing America Apart, by constitutional law scholar Jamal Greene, tackles “rights absolutism” and the deterioration of American political debate. And, in a collection of essays titled Why the Innocent Plead Guilty and the Guilty Go Free, federal judge Jed S. Rakoff “patiently but relentlessly details the shortcomings of the criminal justice system.” WBUR reviews “This Is a Robbery,” a new Netflix docuseries about the “world’s biggest art heist.” In the early hours of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers broke into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and left, more than an hour later, with 13 pieces of art valued at over $500 million. More than three decades later, the crime remains unsolved; the stolen artworks, including Rembrandt’s only seascape and a prized Vermeer, have never been recovered. “This Is a Robbery” offers a primer on this remarkable event, introducing a new generation of viewers to the “seemingly infinite number of outlandish characters and rabbit-hole theories” that have made the mystery of the Gardner Museum heist so enduring – and so intoxicating. Jacobin interviews Nico Walker, the Iraq War veteran turned convicted bank robber turned critically-acclaimed novelist behind 2018’s bestselling Cherry. Cherry, written while Walker was incarcerated, is a semi-fictionalized account of his adult life before prison: after serving as an army medic in Iraq, Walker returned home to Ohio and developed a crippling opioid addiction, which he funded by robbing banks. Walker pulled off 11 robberies before he was arrested in 2011. He was still in prison in 2018, when Cherry was released to near-universal praise. Now, with a major-motion-picture adaption in theaters, Walker spoke to Jacobin about his time in Iraq, reading Dostoevsky, and “why robbing a bank is easier than it looks.” And the Atlantic reviews “Gangs of London,” an “ornately violent” new crime drama from AMC. The show takes place in a version of modern-day London where a consortium of gangs, uneasily brought together by the Irish mobster Finn Wallace, is responsible for virtually all crime. When Finn is murdered in the first episode, his death “leaves a void the rival factions begin battling to fill,” while Finn’s son vows, with “Hamlet-esque perma-gloom and furious consonants,” to avenge his father’s death. “Not your grandmother’s murder mystery,” “Gangs of London” isn’t for the squeamish, but its “baroquely complex universe can be a thrilling one to visit.”