This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: Rolling Stone reports that this week marked the 50-year anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration, on June 17, 1971, of the so-called “war on drugs.” In a special address to Congress, Nixon promised a coordinated federal response to drug addiction, which he described as a “national emergency” that “destroys lives, destroys families, and destroys communities.” But five decades and hundreds of billions of dollars later, the war on drugs has done nothing to curb addiction in the US. Instead, it has “destroyed the lives, families, and communities of millions of Americans, disproportionately people of color, who have been incarcerated for drug offenses.” Now, Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) are attempting to undo some of this damage by introducing the Drug Policy Reform Act, which would decriminalize all drugs in the US, expunge existing records and allow for re-sentencing, and invest in health-centered measures to combat drug addiction. Though the bill has little chance of passing through Congress, it will serve as an “important legislative marker for the movement to end the punitive War on Drugs.” And the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation interviews leading gun violence expert Dr. Shani Buggs. Discussing 2020’s well-documented spike in gun violence, Buggs describes the COVID-19 pandemic as a “perfect storm”: the virus, she says, injected fear and anxiety into communities, especially communities of color, while fraying both economic opportunities and social supports. But she also offers “glimmers of hope”: now, Buggs says, “for the first time, we will have large-scale investments at the federal level into communities, specifically for violence prevention that doesn’t look like more law enforcement.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: In a piece for the Atlantic, public defender Darcy Covert tackles the “false hope of the progressive-prosecutor movement.” In recent years, the public’s “growing familiarity and frustration with America’s criminal legal system” has ushered in the rise of the so-called “progressive prosecutor.” But well-intentioned reformers alone, Covert argues, cannot bring about meaningful change. Though the progressive-prosecutor movement “acknowledges that prosecutors’ ‘breathtaking’ power is a major source of America’s criminal-justice problems,” it stops short in asking – and in trusting – its adherents to use that power for good. “Like police departments,” Covert writes, “prosecutors’ offices are an integral part of a criminal legal system that commits everyday injustices against citizens. Systemic change requires shrinking the power those offices hold.” And a piece from the Texas Observer, in collaboration with NPR, explores the intersections of mental illness and the death penalty. Texas has executed 33 people since 2017 – more than any other state – and has a long history of sentencing people with severe mental illnesses to death. Recently, some state legislators have made progress with a bill that would prevent Texas from executing severely mentally ill defendants convicted of a capital crime. The measure passed the state House this legislative session; but in a reactionary state Senate with a history of “tough on crime” policymaking and deference to law enforcement, change has been harder to come by.
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from the Atlantic explores “Victorian science’s great unsolved murder mystery.” In 1860, the mutilated body of a young boy named Saville Kent was discovered on the grounds of his family’s English country house. Suspicions pointed to Saville’s older half-siblings, Constance and William Kent, then 14 and 15; but the murder was never solved. William, adopting the hyphenated surname Saville-Kent, went on to become a pioneering marine biologist, whose photographs of coral reefs introduced Victorian-era Britain to a previously unknown and unimaginable world of life. But even as Saville-Kent worked to illuminate these biological mysteries, the secrets of his own past would long remain out of reach. And a piece from HuffPost centers on Kip Kinkel, the rare perpetrator of a school shooting to tell his own story in full. In 1998, Kinkel, then 15 years old and in the throes of a psychotic break, shot and killed his mother, father, and two fellow students at his Springfield, Oregon high school. Sentenced to 112 years in prison without the possibility of parole, Kinkel has used the first 23 years of that sentence to seek medical and mental health treatment, earn a college degree, and become an advocate for juvenile justice reform. Now he’s at the center of the national fight to reform juvenile sentencing laws so that young offenders like himself can have a chance at life outside of prison.
In culture/true crime: This week, NPR was awarded a Pulitzer for the podcast No Compromise, an investigative series about “no compromise” gun rights activists. The series centers on brothers Chris, Ben, and Aaron Dorr, three far-right provocateurs whose brand of fiery Second Amendment activism has split American conservatives while raking in millions of dollars in donations. The New Yorker highlights Eléonore Hamelin’s new documentary Quiet No More. The film follows the Reverend Sharon Risher, who lost three relatives in the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, as she mourns, seeks justice, and channels her grief into activism. And, in an essay for the LA Review of Books, journalist Chip Jacobs reflects on his experience as an “accidental true crime writer.” In 1993, Jacobs, then a young metro reporter at the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, had “barely typed a word” about violent crime. Then a chance encounter on the street sent him tumbling headfirst into a wild true tale of blackmail, murder-for-profit, and LA real estate. After all, “the best story is the one you never set out to write.”