Our favorite investigative criminal justice reporting of 2016

Best investigative news reporters that find new ways to shed light on the complicated problems of the criminal justice system in 2016.

by Bernadette Rabuy and Wendy Sawyer, December 29, 2016

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 2016:

  • Since Sandra: Here are the 815 (and counting) who have lost their lives in jail in the year after Sandra Bland died
    Database by Shane Shifflett, Hilary Fung, and Alissa Scheller, with support from a large research and reporting team
    Huffington Post
    July 13, 2016
    In the year after Sandra Bland’s death in a Texas jail, the Huffington Post scoured state and municipal data, news reports, press releases, and crowd-sourced reports to compile the details of over 800 deaths that occurred in jails nationwide. Disturbingly, they found that one-third of jail deaths occurred within the first three days, and suicide or apparent suicide was the leading cause of death. In this light, we see Sandra Bland’s death not as an aberration but as an example of too many jail fatalities.
  • The Scourge of Racial Bias in New York State’s Prisons
    By Michael Schwirtz, Michael Winerip, and Robert Gebeloff
    The New York Times
    December 3, 2016
    Racial disparities in arrests and sentencing are well documented, and The New York Times has now shown inequalities persist in the treatment of black men during their imprisonment. The Times analyzed 60,000 disciplinary cases from 2015 in New York State prisons, many of which are located in upstate New York and staffed by almost all white officers – even though blacks make up almost half of the prison population. The data gives clear evidence of racial discrimination against black and Latino men and appalling details of beatings and racial epithets from guards complete the picture.
  • Machine Bias: There’s software used across the country to predict future criminals. And it’s biased against blacks.
    by Julia Angwin, Jeff Larson, Surya Mattu and Lauren Kirchner
    May 23, 2016
    Can computers predict how likely defendants are to reoffend, reducing bias at crucial decision points? That is the hope with risk assessment tools, which produce scores that can influence decisions about bail and sentencing. But according to ProPublica’s analysis of the scores assigned to 7,000 people arrested in Broward County, Florida, the scores were slightly more accurate than a coin flip. ProPublica also found the tool is racially biased. One reason for this might be because it is difficult to construct a score that doesn’t include variables that correlate with race, like poverty and employment status. “Machine bias” demonstrates the danger of accepting risk assessments as impartial without adequately testing them and urges greater transparency in the use of risk assessments.
  • This small Indiana county sends more people to prison than San Francisco and Durham, N.C., combined. Why?
    by Josh Keller and Adam Pearce
    The New York Times
    September 2, 2016
    People in rural areas much more likely to go to prison than people in urban areas, even as crime has fallen in both rural and urban counties. The New York Times article demonstrates that unless criminal justice reform efforts focus on prosecutorial discretion, the impact of state reforms will be limited. The data provided also makes analyses of the variability in prison rates between counties in a specific state possible. For example, the Courier-Journal honed in on Kentucky counties and found in some counties, participants in drug treatment who experience a relapse automatically have their probation revoked whereas in other counties, first or second-time drug offenses get treatment rather than a conviction. The result is a patchwork of unequal justice, where the county prosecutor can make all the difference.
  • Thousands of Girls are Locked Up for Talking Back or Staying Out Late
    by Hannah Levintova
    Mother Jones
    September/October 2016
    Girls are increasingly impacted by the criminalization of low-level juvenile offenses: facing detention for minor infractions like skipping school or breaking curfew. Hannah Levintova investigated the gender biases that pervade the juvenile justice system and the girls who end up behind bars as a result.
  • Extreme Isolation Scars State Inmates
    by Andy Mannix. Illustration by Clay Rodery
    Star Tribune
    December 4, 2016
    The Star Tribune analysis of Minnesota Department of Corrections records from the past decade reveals that while other states like California and New York have worked to reduce the use of solitary confinement, Minnesota continues to put thousands of people in solitary confinement for long periods of time as punishment for minor offenses. The investigation includes straightforward but effective data visualizations that show what proportion of a person’s prison sentence has been spent in isolation.
  • After a Crime, the Price of a Second Chance
    By Shaila Dewan and Andrew W. Lehren
    The New York Times
    December 12, 2016
    Pretrial diversion is touted as a way to keep defendants out of crowded jails, lighten court caseloads, and connect people with needed services. But The New York Times finds that this “alternative” is often “pay to play,” with prosecutors offering pretrial diversion only to those who can afford high fees. Shaila Dewan and Andrew W. Lehren’s article offers illuminating examples and analysis, but the accompanying interactive makes the point simple: pretrial diversion is a rigged game.
  • Poor offenders pay high price when probation turns on profit
    by Adam Geller and Sharon Cohen
    Associated Press
    March 12, 2016
    Probation is not always the alternative to incarceration it seems. This is particularly true when governments outsource probation services to private probation companies. This investigation into the exploitative practices of private probation companies shows that in many places, probation is about profit, and people who can’t afford to pay fines and fees up front are trapped in a cycle of increasing debt and punishment.
  • Gutting Habeas Corpus: The Inside Story of How Bill Clinton Sacrificed Prisoners’ Rights for Political Gain
    by Liliana Segura
    The Intercept
    May 4, 2016
    Published when many people interested in criminal justice reform were talking about President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, The Intercept’s Liliana Segura shines light on a lesser-known Clinton bill that has been a roadblock to justice, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The bill made it harder for wrongly convicted people to prove their innocence, and Segura’s article explains the political machinations behind the effort to gut the ancient right of habeas corpus.
  • The bold step President Obama could take to let thousands of federal inmates go free
    by Casey Tolan
    May 4, 2016
    Fusion’s Casey Tolan tells the story of President Gerald Ford, who granted clemency to 13,603 people, thousands more than President Obama, despite Obama’s initiative to grant clemency. The article explains that President Obama could have more effectively used his clemency power by following in Ford’s footsteps and establishing a commission of lawyers, former elected officials, and generals who had one year to make clemency recommendations to the president. Tolan’s article is a great reminder of how history can inform the present.

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