This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: A story from Essence explores “the collapse of criminal legal reform in the Black mecca.” In recent years, Atlanta, once a national leader on criminal justice reform, has fallen to “peddling the same rhetoric that ushered in mass incarceration decades ago” – a shift embodied in the City Council’s support for “Cop City,” a $90-million police training facility widely opposed by local residents. A look into the “curious alliance” between the state’s conservative governor and the supposedly progressive policymakers at Atlanta City Hall “reveals Black leadership caving to racist tough-on-crime fear mongering and police pressure – a reality that could devastate generations of Black and poor Atlantans.” Vanity Fair reports from Alabama, where, if state lawmakers have their way, some $400 million in federal COVID relief money will go not to COVID relief but the construction of at least three brand-new prisons. A piece from the Economist centers on the ongoing crisis of Rikers Island. During the pandemic, widespread staffing shortages have produced brutal and rapidly deteriorating conditions at the jail, where at least 12 inmates have died this year alone. But the misery at Rikers, the piece reports, is not for lack of resources: even as the jail’s population fell by half between 2012 and 2020, its budget increased – by nearly 25%. Today, it costs roughly $438,000 to jail one person there for one year. The prison, the piece argues, “stands out as an example of how some institutions are unreformable.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from Slate tackles misleading crime data and “what the media gets wrong” about last year’s murder spike. Last week, in response to the FBI’s latest release of crime data showing that murders spiked across the country last year, many national news outlets published articles and opinion pieces suggesting the uptick was due, at least in part, to backlash over last summer’s protests against police brutality. This theory, dubbed the “Ferguson effect,” was debunked years ago, but the same line of thinking – that “homicide rate increases could be attributed to police withdrawing from their duties after receiving public criticism” – is still pervasive in crime coverage today. But “apply some light scrutiny to this widely cited theory,” the piece argues, “and it quickly falls apart.” A piece from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel also highlights competing political narratives around rising violent crime, while a story from The Week explores “America’s two crime problems”: on the one hand, “crime itself”; on the other, “the police who are supposed to solve and prevent those crimes. It is not clear the two problems can be fixed independently.” Another Slate story centers on “the local elected officials who are tanking police reform”: local sheriffs, and the overwhelmingly white, staunchly conservative unions that represent them. And New York Magazine reports from Aurora, Colorado, where, last summer, hundreds of protesters turned out to demand justice for Elijah McClain – but instead found themselves facing decades in prison.
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from the New York Times centers on the plight of Louisiana’s “10-6 lifers.” In the 1970s, many Louisiana prisoners who pled guilty to various crimes were told that in 10 years and 6 months, they would be eligible for parole. Then the state raised its parole eligibility requirement to 20 years, and then to 40; by 1979, “the chance of parole was gone altogether.” Five decades later, many of those inmates – most of whom are Black, many now well into their 70s or 80s – remain behind bars. But now, relief could be imminent, as their cases have drawn the attention of New Orleans’ new DA, the progressive former criminal defense lawyer Jason Williams. “The promises made to these men were absolutely broken by the state,” Williams says, “just one example in a very long line of a betrayal of promises to Black folks in this country.” And a piece from New York Magazine recounts the forgotten story of a police riot at City Hall. In September 1992, thousands of off-duty NYPD officers, many of them drunk, marched on City Hall in protest of then-mayor David Dinkins, who was pushing a bill to strengthen civilian oversight of the police department. The violence that ensued has, for various reasons, been “all but scrubbed” from the city’s historical memory. But the riot was a formative experience for two future mayors of New York – Bill de Blasio, then a junior aide in the Dinkins administration; and Rudy Giuliani, who was among the protesters that day – as well as its likely next mayor, Eric Adams, then a 32-year-old transit-police officer. A closer look at the event also serves as a reminder, the piece argues, of the challenges Adams will face when he takes office next year: “a police department that, all these decades later, still often seems hell-bent on resisting meaningful reform.”
In culture/true crime: A piece from the Guardian highlights incarcerated artist Donny Johnson, the subject of a new documentary called Painted With My Hair and of an upcoming exhibition at London’s Riverside Studios. The film takes its name from Johnson’s practice of painting with a brush made from his own hair – a reflection of the creative limitations he faces at the High Desert Prison in Susanville, CA, where he is serving a life sentence for murder. Donny’s story, says filmmaker Mike Dibb, is an “inspiring example of one man’s astonishing resilience and personal transformation, achieved in defiance of a gratuitously cruel prison system.” A piece from the LA Times centers on the Gabby Petito story and media’s “missing white woman syndrome.” “Each year,” writes culture reporter Matt Pearce, “there is an unimaginable sum of suffering, fear and uncertainty experienced by hundreds of thousands of Americans who experience a loved one gone missing.” But very few of those cases are likely to draw any media attention, let alone the saturation coverage that Petito’s has received – thanks, Pearce argues, to the “implicit racism and classism driving traditional newsrooms’ determination of whose suffering is news and whose suffering isn’t interesting.” And Bustle interviews broadcaster and “avid true crime” Yinka Bokinni, whose new digital series for Channel 4, True Crime Unraveled, will premier later this month. For Bokinni, a Black woman, “changing true crime is personal”; she hopes the new show will “challenge the notion that only men can front the genre.” “The majority of people who teach criminology are women,” she says, “but, when you turn on the TV, they’re all men. They give the jobs to Piers Morgan and old police guys in brown suits.”