This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: Pieces from Vox and CNN explore the deeper story behind 2021’s headline-grabbing crime data. Last year, the US saw the biggest increase in its murder rate in decades; so far, the spike has continued into 2021: murders are up nearly 15% compared to the same period last year. We can’t know, with certainty, what’s behind this rise, though experts agree that a range of different factors – the COVID-19 pandemic, protests over police brutality, and America’s “gun problem” – are all likely to blame. The good news, though, is that experts can agree when it comes to possible solutions. The best evidence suggests that stopping murders in the short term will require “more and better, though not necessarily more aggressive, policing – a controversial proposal on the left.” In the longer term, experts also point to other initiatives – social programs and services, mental health and addiction treatment, more and better gun control – as powerful anti-crime interventions and alternatives to police. And the San Francisco Chronicle reports from Oakland, CA, which recently launched a new experiment in “holistic approaches to violence reduction.” The city created a Department of Violence Prevention in 2017, but the department lacked substantial funding and leadership until last summer, when the City Council directed more than $17 million away from Mayor Libby Schaaf’s proposed police budget and into the fledgling agency. Now, under the leadership of “anti-violence czar” Guillermo Cespedes, the department will introduce a range of new initiatives to “stop violence before it starts.” In Oakland, where homicides have increased by nearly 80% this year over 2020, the pressure – and the stakes – couldn’t be higher.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) examines the “past, present, and future of COVID-19 in California prisons.” The pandemic has left a deep and lasting impact on California’s sprawling prison system: though the state reduced its prison population by more than any other, California prisoners endured many of the worst outbreaks in the nation, leading to 227 inmate deaths and nearly 50,000 infections. Now, although California’s prison population remains historically low, it is starting to rebound – a trend that advocates worry may prolong the pandemic’s impact on incarcerated people statewide. A story from Mother Jones also highlights rising prison populations in the waning days of COVID-19. During his campaign, President Joe Biden promised repeatedly to reduce the country’s prison population, at one point pledging to cut the number of incarcerated people in the US by more than half. But half a year into his term, those promises are ringing hollow. According to BOP data, the federal prison population has actually grown – by roughly 2% in the first six months of Biden’s presidency. And, as the New York Times reported earlier this week, Biden’s legal team recently announced that thousands of people who were released early from federal prisons last year to slow the spread of coronavirus could soon be forced to return. “This is the most telling sign yet,” says NYU Law professor Rachel Barkow, “that this administration has criminal justice low on its list of priorities, despite the campaign promises to the contrary.”
In complex crime storytelling: A fascinating story from Discover Magazine offers insight into the little-known science of “deception detection.” Cultures all over the world have largely agreed on a collection of signs and signals that indicate dishonesty: nervousness, gaze aversion, excessive blinking or sweating. In reality, though, most of our cultural assumptions about how people act when they’re lying are wrong; as a society, we are still pretty much in the dark when it comes to detecting deception – even, as in the context of the criminal justice system, when the stakes are very high. And a piece from The Cut asks, “Can bad men ever change?” In recent years, restorative justice – “a form of conflict resolution that brings together survivors and offenders with a focus on repairing the damage done, rather than punishing the person responsible” – has gained traction in some circles as a more holistic, less punitive way to resolve criminal cases. Typically used in cases involving low-level crimes, applying these practices in the context of domestic and sexual abuse is more complicated, and more divisive. But advocates say a restorative approach can offer survivors of gendered violence something the courts cannot: dialogue, a sense of resolution, and the accountability that criminal legal systems so often fail to provide.
In culture/true crime: A piece from Jezebel asks, “Is it possible to fix true crime?”. As a genre, the piece argues, true crime has always been more about the “novelization” of a real-life crime than good faith attempt to disseminate the details of a tragedy for the public good. Now, women historians and investigative journalists are looking to tell stories about women and violence in a more ethical way. A story from The Trace, from 2019, highlights Open Doors, a New York City-based artists’ collective for victims of gun-related violence. Once isolated by their gunshot injuries, the members of Open Doors are forging new identities through dialogue, community, and their shared love of art. And the Guardian goes inside a women’s prison in Tbilisi, Georgia with photographer Olivia Arthur. Arthur first visited the prison in 2006, for a project called The Middle-Distance, about young women living on the border between Europe and Asia. Speaking with the Guardian, Arthur discusses her experiences there, the images she captured, and the women whose stories she learned along the way.