Our favorite investigative criminal justice reporting of 2018

Reporters are deepening our understanding of complex facets of the criminal justice system and illuminating paths to reform. We share some of our favorites.

by Bernadette Rabuy, December 27, 2018

This year, reporters gave a voice to the vulnerable, filled in critical data gaps, and deepened our understanding of complex issues in the criminal justice system. Here are some of our favorites:

  • One War. Two Races.
    December 2017*

    Analyzing millions of records across five databases, this four-part series published late last year finds that drug laws continue to disproportionately hurt Black defendants in Florida, even as the drug epidemic extends its reach beyond communities of color and treatment becomes more common. The series includes an interactive map that allows readers to grasp how each region is confronting the drug epidemic. A review of one state prosecutor’s drug cases revealed that he was far more likely to drop charges against white defendants than Black defendants. In Highlands County, judges sentence Blacks to more than double the time than whites for felony drug crimes. Even when it comes to drug court or government-funded treatment programs, Blacks are less likely to have the opportunity to participate. The Herald-Tribune’s series highlights that despite shifts in the response to substance abuse, racial bias stubbornly remains.
  • How to Buy a Gun in 15 Countries
    Audrey Carlsen and Sahil Chinoy
    The New York Times
    March 2, 2018

    The ease with which many Americans purchase guns is unique internationally. This piece lays out the process for buying guns in fifteen countries, demonstrating that the U.S. is out of step with many other countries in not requiring firearm safety training, police inspections of storage, or interviews of potential buyers’ family, friends, and neighbors. The article suggests that gun ownership in the U.S. surpasses that of any other country because of the country’s lax requirements for ownership.

  • Women describe degrading strip searches at Baker prison visitation
    Ben Conarck
    The Florida Times-Union
    March 21, 2018

    Earlier this year, the Florida Department of Corrections enacted a policy requiring that visitors undergo strip searches if they set off metal detectors. Ben Conarck investigates whether there is support for the department’s purported justification that visitors are bringing in contraband. Conarck finds that corrections officers, prison researchers, and even the department’s own data agree that contraband rarely enters prisons through visitors. Be sure to also check out The Florida Times-Union’s editorial arguing that there is no justifiable reason for Florida to discourage visitation and our own national survey of contraband in jails, which calls into question visitation policies that criminalize incarcerated people’s loved ones.

  • Prosecutors aren’t just enforcing the law—they’re making it
    Josie Duffy Rice
    The Appeal
    April 20, 2018

    These days, it seems like everybody is talking about the powerful role that prosecutors hold in the criminal justice system. In this article, Josie Duffy Rice shines light on their less talked-about but influential reach as lobbyists. Trading on paranoia and fear, district attorneys nationwide not only enforce the law but also make it. Prosecutors adamantly oppose legislative reforms that promote mercy toward defendants or implement oversight over law enforcement.

  • Sex Crimes and Criminal Justice
    Barbara Koepple
    The Washington Spectator
    May 4, 2018

    Barbara Koepple allows readers to peek behind the curtain of civil commitment, the practice of states civilly detaining people convicted of sexual offenses after completion of their prison sentences. While states claim that civil commitment is necessary to prevent sexual crimes, Koepple explains that its roots actually trace back to ill-founded beliefs about how likely people convicted of sexual offenses are to recidivate and disproportionate media reporting of sexual crimes. The investigation uncovers a broken system, in which it is nearly impossible for people to be released from civil commitment, whether due to the subjectivity of the criteria for release or irrational rules that can easily be broken. In pointing out the high costs of civil commitment and other approaches in states like Vermont and internationally, the article is also an urgent call for reform.

  • Mothers Are Incarcerated at Record Rates, Yet Prison-Nursery Beds Go Empty
    Victoria Law
    May 13, 2018

    Despite the thousands of pregnant women behind bars each year and the upward trend in women incarcerated, Victoria Law finds that most correctional nursery programs have empty beds. Correctional nursery programs have real benefits such as making it less likely that an incarcerated mother will lose her parental rights, but the stringent eligibility criteria make it difficult to participate even when a program is available. Prison nurseries highlight broader challenges in the movement for criminal justice reform— prioritizing community alternatives to incarceration and making reforms available to people convicted of violent offenses.

  • Trump’s catch-and-detain policy snares many who have long called U.S. home
    Mica Rosenberg and Reade Levinson
    Reuters Investigates
    June 20, 2018

    When the media and the public were focused on Trump’s family separation policy, Mica Rosenberg and Reade Levinson highlighted an unofficial family separation policy. Under Trump, ICE denies bond much more frequently, requiring even immigrants with little to no criminal history and deep roots in their communities to wait for their hearings behind bars. The investigation explains how local police collaborate with ICE by turning over immigrants suspected of committing minor traffic violations and provides an additional example of the tenuous link between pretrial detention and public safety.

  • If He Didn’t Kill Anyone, Why Is It Murder?
    Abbie VanSickle
    The New York Times
    June 27, 2018

    Abbie VanSickle shines light on the California legislature’s efforts to scale back felony murder, a legal doctrine which allows individuals involved in certain kinds of serious felonies that lead in death to be held as liable as the killer. One motivation for reform was felony murder’s disproportionate impact on women and young Black and Latino men. The legislation, which the governor successfully signed into law, changes state law so that only someone who actually killed, intended to kill, or acted as a major player can be charged with murder. The article highlights that the distinction between violent and nonviolent offenses can be murky.

  • Police Violence Map
    Mapping Police Violence

    Mapping Police Violence compiles data from three databases, FatalEncounters.org, the U.S. Police Shootings Database, and KilledbyPolice.net, and their own sifting through social media and obituaries to find that police have killed 1,122 people in 2018. The interactive map memorializes the victims and provides a description of the incident, information about whether the officer was charged, and links to related news stories. The Police Violence Map provides critical data that the government has thus far failed to systematically report.

*Technically 2017, but we thought it was worth including this in-depth undertaking that we initially missed

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