Starting this week, the Fair Punishment Project will be teaming up with the online news magazine Slate to create a series called Trials and Error. It is a collaboration aimed at illustrating the reality of the justice system, and how to fix it. Much of what happens in the criminal justice system is shrouded in secrecy, and many of its players operate without transparency or accountability. Focused on providing thorough, fair, and accurate investigative journalism and policy analysis, Trials and Error aims to tell stories that reflect and preserve human dignity—stories that are honest, truthful, and thorough.
This partnership will draw upon veteran criminal justice reporters from the Fair Punishment Project, among them Daniel Denvir, Larry Hannan, Josie Duffy Rice, Rebecca McCray, and Jessica Pishko. Trials and Error will also feature academic voices, including Ron Sullivan, John Pfaff, Brandon Garrett, Carissa Hessick, Leah Litman, Vesla Weaver, and Daniel Medwed.
The United States leads the world in incarceration rates, housing less than 5 percent of the world’s population but almost 25 percent of its prisoners. Our incarceration rate is higher than both China’s and Russia’s, and is six times that of Canada. Even if the typical prison sentence were cut in half, the U.S. would still significantly outpace the incarceration rates of our peer nations. In a country that professes freedom and liberty to be among its most paramount values, it is especially ironic that our criminal justice system has morphed into the all-encompassing and expensive system it is today.
The burden of this overly punitive system is not borne equally. People of color, Black people in particular, are disproportionately subject to arrest and incarceration. Poor people also suffer unequally in this system, which often relies on unnecessary cash bail and unaffordable fines and fees to sustain itself. And those suffering from mental illness and addiction too often end up in jails and prisons instead of receiving treatment.
To significantly reduce incarceration and rebuild faith in the justice system, our conception of both criminality and criminalization must shift. That shift requires legislators, lawyers, judges, corrections officials, and community and faith groups to show commitment, creativity, and a willingness to grapple with our past failings. It also requires targeted, informed, and data-driven journalism and research.
Most of the power in the justice system rests with local actors, including local prosecutors and law enforcement.Yet these local institutional actors are rarely scrutinized. Ineffective and harmful policies are often kept afloat by rhetoric rather than evidence. As our incarceration epidemic took root, the media played a central role in creating and sustaining the moral panics that promoted mass incarceration—from Willie Horton to the “superpredator” myth—rather than searching for the truth.
While this has changed to some degree, and some of the best and most dedicated journalism in America today is about the justice system, it is not unusual to see stories without context or nuance, and to read pieces where statements by law enforcement are taken as truth without evidence to support them.
This new collaboration seeks to change this dynamic. You can see two of our most recent pieces on the newly-appointed Dallas District Attorney and the false promise of sanctuary cities today. Look out for more from Trials and Error on Slate.com.