Our favorite investigative criminal justice reporting of 2017

by Wanda Bertram and Wendy Sawyer, December 28, 2017

Each year, investigative news reporters find new ways to shed light on the complicated problems of the criminal justice system. These are some of the in-depth stories and analyses that impressed us most in 2017:

  • Ability to vote compromised for thousands behind bars
    La Risa Lynch
    The Chicago Reporter
    July 10, 2017

    A timely Chicago Reporter investigation this year raised the question: How many people are disenfranchised by the criminal justice system, not because of a felony record, but because they are in jail awaiting trial? Of the 700,000 people in jail in 2015, 63 percent were still eligible to vote, and poor Black and Latino defendants were overrepresented among them. The Chicago Reporter story reveals that local sheriffs and election officials hold the keys to empowering eligible voters in jail to vote, and how inconsistent their efforts are to facilitate registration and voting. Adding a new dimension to the problem of disenfranchisement by the criminal justice system, this piece calls attention to America’s jail problem at a time when it is urgently needed.

  • Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow’
    Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg
    The New York Times
    July 21, 2017

    The American foster care system is famously troubled, but a New York Times investigation this year revealed that New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services often punishes poor parents by taking their children away in “emergency removals” aided by the police. According to public defenders, poor Black and Hispanic mothers are most affected – held to unreasonably high standards in court, closely watched by caseworkers, and sometimes even arrested. The practice is so widespread that landlords have weaponized it, threatening to call Children’s Services on lower-paying tenants. This is an alarming example of the criminalization of poverty via implicit biases at government agencies.

  • A 911 plea for help, a Taser shot, a death- and the mounting toll of stun guns
    Peter Eisler, Jason Szep, Tim Reid and Grant Smith
    Reuters
    August 22, 2017

    Reuters left no stone unturned in its six-part series on Taser stun guns this year. In this first piece alone, the investigative team examined over 1,000 deaths that followed police use of Tasers, finding that a quarter of those who died were suffering from a mental health crisis or neurological disorder at the time. In more than 100 cases, police had initially been called to respond to a medical emergency. At a time when police use of force is headline news, Reuters shows that even “safer” alternatives to firearms can be excessive, and even deadly. (See Part 6 for a similar analysis of the use of Tasers on incarcerated people.)

  • When Junk Science About Sex Offenders Infects the Supreme Court
    David Feige
    New York Times
    September 12, 2017

    To date, the U.S. Supreme Court has approved draconian restrictions on people accused of sex offenses because the odds of committing another offense are “frightening and high” and “as high as 80%”. On what did the court base that finding? Legal scholars Ira and Tara Ellman followed the footnotes to find that it’s based on basically nothing at all.

    David Feige mentions this story very briefly in his 2016 Untouchable documentary, and goes deeper in this September New York Times op-ed and 8-minute documentary to meet the people behind those early articles.

    At the risk of ruining the documentary’s narrative arc, the “frightening and high” language comes from an article not in a science magazine, but in a popular magazine. At the time (in 1986) there wasn’t much research on sex offense recidivism, and the studies ranged from rates of 35% to 80%. So what does the author of that original article think about using his article to say that all people convicted of sex offenses recidivate at 80%? He says “That’s absolutely incorrect. It’s wrong. It’s not true.” And the idea that laws were based on his writing in a non-scientific magazine? He’s appalled. The documentary raises the question: now that modern research says that the recividism rate is in the range of 1% to 3%, why do the courts insist on citing the more dramatic, if completely wrong, figure?

  • Amid Opioid Crisis, Insurers Restrict Pricey, Less Addictive Painkillers
    Katie Thomas and Charles Ornstein
    The New York Times
    September 17, 2017

    The New York Times and ProPublica collaborated on this investigation of the role insurers play in the ongoing opioid crisis. In their analysis of Medicare prescription plans and interviews with patients and professionals, they found that insurers often restrict access to safer, more expensive treatments, and leave patients with chronic pain few options but to take cheaper, more addictive drugs. Insurers often made it easier to get addictive substances than to get non-drug treatments and even treatment for addiction. While this article doesn’t touch upon the criminal justice implications, there are more than 1 million arrests for drug possession each year and two-thirds of people in jail have a history of a substance use disorder – even though it’s clear that the deck is stacked against people who need safe treatment, not punishment.

  • They confessed to minor crimes. Then City Hall billed them $122k in ‘prosecution fees’
    Brett Kelman
    The Desert Sun
    November 15, 2017

    Silver and Wright, a private law firm contracted as city prosecutor for two southern California towns, has been using its power to take residents to court for minor crimes and then hand them sky-high bills for their own prosecution. A Desert Sun investigation found that the cities billed 18 defendants more than $120,000 in prosecution fees – defendants mostly charged with public nuisance crimes, like overgrown weeds – and threatened to take away their homes if they did not pay. Brett Kelman details one of the most egregious recent examples of the privatization of justice functions leading to the exploitation of defendants.

  • How Trump’s Hands-Off Approach to Policing Is Frustrating Some Chiefs
    Steve Eder, Ben Protess and Shaila Dewan
    The New York Times
    November 21, 2017

    President Trump’s Justice Department, which has treated excessive force by police as a non-issue, announced in September that it would scale back a program that offered guidance to troubled police departments. The Justice Department calls its new approach “hands off,” but a New York Times deep dive found that many police chiefs are pushing back, saying the program was collaborative and useful. Resistance from police chiefs of all stripes points to a “growing consensus” that building bridges with underserved communities should be a public safety priority.

  • More women are jailed in Texas, even though arrests have dropped. Why?
    Cary Aspinwall
    The Dallas Morning News
    December 3, 2017

    The Dallas Morning News combed through monthly data from sheriffs’ offices to discover an alarming trend: The number of unconvicted women in Texas jails has climbed by 48 percent since 2011. Cary Aspinwall profiles jailed women who are part of this upward trend, and explains that what’s driving women’s jail growth in Texas is that women “keep going back, trapped in a cycle of debt and poverty and drug addiction.” The piece represents growing awareness of the problem of women’s mass incarceration in local correctional facilities. (To learn about women’s incarceration in your state, stay tuned for our next report, The Gender Divide, due out in January 2018.)

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