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Ted Gest

From ‘Boom’ to Bust: 10 Years of Criminal Justice Change

May 2, 2013 06:50:14 am
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By Ted Gest

A decade ago, when Crime and Justice News began providing daily summaries of important developments, criminal justice was, in one sense, “booming”:  the incarcerated population was growing, despite a long-term decline in the crime rate.

Taxpayer money spent on the justice system seemed like it had nowhere to go but up.

Within five years, a recession changed that. Government officials across the nation are still seeking ways to economize.

As we mark our 10th anniversary, our unique digest continues to reflect not only the economic challenges facing the nation’s criminal justice system, but the similar challenges to journalism itself.

Crime and Justice News, produced by Criminal Justice Journalists, is emailed to about 6,000 people Monday through Friday and appears simultaneously on The Crime Report. We started it in 2003 because there was no reliable national daily report on criminal justice news and developments. A decade later, we are still unique as a report that covers the entire criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, the journalism profession overall has taken major hits—caused largely by the growth of the Internet. And the toll continues to be severe, as print newspapers around the country suffer major layoffs, and a few have closed down entirely.

The ease of creating a website has encouraged contradictory trends in the reporting of crime and justice.

On the one hand, news sources have proliferated, with small local news sites, bloggers, and advocacy groups offering their own takes on criminal justice developments. At the same time, mainstream media outlets have reduced traditional enterprise reporting as their income from advertising has been drained by online phenomena like craigslist.

Crime and Justice News continues to reflect these journalistic trends, as well as the broader changes in our field.  The dozen news items we highlight each weekday, consisting of exclusive news from government and academic sources and digests of news reporting by others, illustrate noticeable changes in both content and sourcing.

Many more of today’s news items deal with federal, state, and local officials struggling with how to protect public safety with fewer available tax revenues.  Our stories frequently describe public agencies trying to do more with less, many of them adapting their practices to scientific evidence of what works to cut crime.

As for news sourcing, there are relatively fewer stories from newspapers and more from blogs and online-only news organizations of many varieties.

Over the years, readers have asked why some stories are included in the digest and others are not.

It’s a daily judgment call, but the goal is to report news that may have significance to more than one community. There is no way that we could report every major crime, or would want to do so.

For the most part, crime incidents reported here should have some resonance, whether they are part of a trend or involve some new or unusual twist. We apply the same criteria to items about the criminal justice system—focusing on whether they represent structural shifts, different ways of delivering services, or cutbacks prompted by budget woes.

With a daily report that spans the entire justice system, we also try to include stories from a variety of geographical areas. It would be easy to fill the digest with stories about the hot topic of the day, whether it is gun control or terrorism, but our primary aim is to provide a more complete picture of what is going on nationally.

For that, we exercise the judgment based on our organization’s combined experience and wide contacts in the field. Both our member journalists and sources in criminal justice regularly suggest stories for the digest.

Because the details of many news stories are discovered only over time, what may appear at first like a story with great criminal justice importance may turn out to be one that is actually a local concern.

The recent killings of two Texas prosecutors in separate incidents may turn out to be such a case.

What initially was speculated to be a plot by drug cartels or prison inmates may in fact be the work of a  former local official who, aided by his wife, was seeking revenge for his prosecution. The case still merits attention because prosecutors rarely are murdered, but it may have no long-lasting impact outside of Kaufman County, Texas

A dozen news items each day can reflect only a small fraction of what is happening nationwide.

Why do some cities or regions rarely appear in our digest (another question we are sometimes asked)? 

The reasons vary. There may not be much happening in the criminal justice field in a particular city or region that is of wider interest.

Just as possible, though, is that the news media aren’t reporting it. This is hard to prove statistically, but anecdotally many news organizations have cut back both on beat reporters—in our field, the people who report the news from police stations and courthouses—and on enterprise journalists who look into corruption and trends that aren’t immediately obvious.

One good example of the latter is a series last month in The New York Times about how the courts in the city’s Bronx borough process criminal cases so slowly.   

Lawyers, defendants, victims, and jurors knew what was happening—or not happening as the case may be—but it took months of work by reporter William Glaberson to bring the story to life. As it happens, Glaberson left the newspaper shortly after his articles appeared, another loss to a profession with relatively few people having long-term knowledge of how criminal justice works.

In many cities, non-profit local news sites have popped up to fill some of the gaps left by the reduced reporting by traditional news organizations. While several of these have done exemplary reporting, such as the California Watch organization and the Texas Tribune, these outlets typically employ only a small number of journalists, who usually can’t specialize in one area of reporting.

Crime and Justice News strives to tell it like it is, not to advocate for one cause or another.

If we have a bias, it is to focus on the media aspects of crime stories. Because this website is run as a partnership between the Center for Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College and Criminal Justice Journalists, one of our missions is to assess the impact of media coverage on government policy and on public opinion

We want to feature exemplary journalism, and also want to call attention to media misrepresentations—not to scold journalists for honest errors, but rather in the hope of preventing others from going astray.

On the criminal justice side, some professionals have complained that we often use stories about flaws in the justice system.

Recently, for example, the Denver Post and other media have focused on policies and practices in the Colorado corrections system that made it easier for the suspected killer of the director of the state’s Department of Corrections to commit his crime.

This is the kind of journalism, when responsibly done, that we’d like to encourage by giving it national attention.

We’re also glad to run stories telling how the justice system has worked effectively, whether it involves solving crimes or reducing recidivism.

We welcome suggestions from readers, especially references to good news stories that we might otherwise miss.

Feel free to message me  at tgest@sas.upenn.edu with any ideas. 

As we said in an earlier e-mail message marking our anniversary, we thank our financial supporters over the years, including the Butler Family Fund, Wadsworth Publishing, the Open Society Institute, the Ford Foundation, the National Criminal Justice Association, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

What will the next 10 years bring?  The only constant we can predict—as both journalists and veteran observers of criminal justice—is more change.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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