This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: Nearly a year and half since the police murder of George Floyd, a piece from MSNBC explores the past, present, and future of “defund the police.” Last summer, “defund” became a progressive rallying cry, echoing from protesters in the streets to city halls across the country. But now, amid a purported surge in violent crime, many cities across the US that cut police budgets in response to calls for sweeping police reform are swiftly reversing course. A piece from Texas Monthly examines rising crime and the return of “law and order” politics. In the early 2000s, Texas became a model of “how to safely move away from mass incarceration.” During his term, Gov. Rick Perry signed dozens of bills that helped free the wrongfully convicted and kept nonviolent offenders out of jail, ultimately reducing the state’s incarcerated population by enough to close three prisons. But Perry’s successor, Gov. Greg Abbott, has joined a “counterrevolution,” steadfastly resisting even the most modest reforms to policing and his state’s archaic bail system. And Politico reports on another vestige of “tough on crime” policymaking – local judges – and the emerging movement to “flip the bench.” In a handful of cities around the country, criminal justice reformers are organizing to get reform-minded judges elected to local benches, setting in motion a movement to “flip the bench.”. At a moment when national politicians are “cautiously backing away from more aggressive proposals to reform the nation’s criminal justice system,” the movement to flip the bench offers an alternative path forward for reform – albeit one that “most challenges the left’s conventional view of elected judges as instruments of tough-on-crime policies.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A new study published this week in the research journal JAMA highlights linkages between mass incarceration and the spread of COVID-19. In the first study directly linking mass incarceration rates to pandemic vulnerability, researchers at Northwestern University and the World Bank analyzed data from 1,600 counties across the US. They found, reports NPR, that the US jail and prison system acts as an “epidemic engine,” driven by the massive number of people who, despite some counties’ efforts to trim jail populations, have been cycling between cramped detention facilities and their home communities. The study linked an 80% reduction in the US jail population to a 2% drop in the growth rate of daily COVID cases – a shift that, had the US done more to reduce its incarceration rate, could have prevented millions of COVID cases and tens of thousands of deaths. But US prison systems, the Prison Policy Initiative reports, are continuing to fail incarcerated people and their communities on the outside. During the pandemic, nine states’ prison populations have dropped by only 10% or less – far short of the large-scale population reduction experts say is needed to mitigate the pandemic’s devastating impacts behind bars. Researchers emphasize that many of those preventable cases occurred in communities of color, arguing that the spread of coronavirus between jails and communities “likely accounts for a substantial proportion of the racial disparities we have seen in COVID-19 cases across the US.”
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from Xtra Magazine highlights the Trans Doe Task Force, a small team of LGBT investigators seeking justice for the missing and murdered trans people that police have left behind. Around the world, trans and gender nonconforming people are subject to disproportionate violence, often leading to death. And when trans people are killed, their cases often fall under the radar – or, if they are pursued, those cases remain especially difficult to solve. But one couple – Anthony and Lee Redgrave, married forensic genealogists and founders of the nonprofit TDTF – is working to keep their memories alive. And New York Magazine profiles 23-year-old nightlife promoter turned Black Lives Matter organizer turned New York City Council candidate Chi Ossé. Before the pandemic, Ossé, a self-described queer college dropout, was hosting parties at Brooklyn clubs. The murder of George Floyd, last May, was a turning point: Ossé “took to the streets,” founding Warriors in the Garden, a Brooklyn-based collective that organized daily demonstrations against police brutality. Last summer, Ossé launched his unlikely bid for City Council, campaigning on promises of police reform and cuts to the NYPD. With no Republican challenger in the general election, he will likely join the City Council at a historic moment, one that has been opened up by term limits to a younger, more diverse, and more progressive field of candidates.
In culture/true crime: A piece from the New Yorker highlights the 2008 documentary Dear Zachary, the rare true-crime story that “puts the victims first.” An “unusually personal and powerful story of a murder,” the film “may offer something of a counterweight to the forces of bias and prurience that often pull the genre off-track.” The Nation interviews formerly incarcerated painter and rising art-world star Fulton Leroy Washington. Washington first took up painting in the late 1990s, while serving a life sentence for nonviolent drug-related offenses he says he did not commit. Since his unlikely release from prison in 2016, Washington has gone on to win national and international art-world acclaim for paintings depicting stories of American incarceration. And The Guardian highlights “Someone’s Daughter,” a new photography exhibition that seeks to reframe women at the center of the criminal-justice debate. The project places portraits of formerly incarcerated or otherwise system-impacted women alongside those of women professionals working within the “criminal justice space.” Through this juxtaposition, the exhibition “seeks to change how formerly incarcerated women are perceived and ultimately the way justice is served.”