Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Former New York Times Executive Editor Says Our Courts and Prisons Are Failing Us

October 15, 2014
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Former New York Times Executive Editor Says Our Courts and Prisons Are Failing Us
The American prison system is failing under the weight of spiraling costs, controversial drug laws and overcrowding. Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Through The Marshall Project, he wants to start a discussion about how to reform the criminal justice system.

It takes a lot to lure a longtime New York Times journalist and former executive editor away from The Grey Lady. But the “pressing national need for excellent journalism about the U.S. court and prison systems” and a belief that the time has come to launch a national conversation on how to reform our criminal justice system drew Bill Keller to The Marshall Project, where he now serves as editor in chief.

In an email interview ahead of the NationSwell Council event “Reforming the American Prison System,” which Keller will join as a panelist, he discusses the “vicious cycle” of the system, the “lack of public urgency” around the issues and the one question not enough people are asking.

Why do you believe this country needs a media outlet like The Marshall Project focused exclusively on our criminal justice system?

Three reasons. First, there is a pretty broad consensus, across the political spectrum, that the criminal justice system is wasteful, inhumane and largely unsuccessful at its primary mission, which is making us safer. Second, the economic trauma of the media industry has meant cutbacks in the staff, space, airtime and commitment devoted to investigative journalism and to reporting on complicated policy issues like criminal justice. And, third, this feels like a moment when the conventional wisdom about these issues can be moved, from a lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality to something more thoughtful and strategic. This opportunity is created in part by a surge of conservative support for reform and the coming of age of a generation that was not raised on high crime rates and fear-mongering.

You’ve made it very clear that The Marshall Project is a journalistic organization — not an advocacy group. But it does have a mission. So how will that shape the stories you tell?

Our mission is to create public awareness and a sense of urgency about the dysfunctions of the [criminal justice] system and to test the potential of various reforms. It will guide our choice of targets — an emphasis on stories that have been under-reported or misunderstood and a preference for stories that will have an impact. Our reporting will be shaped by the traditional standards of high-quality journalism: accuracy, fairness, independence and impartiality. I hope our work will combine eye-opening reporting with engaging writing.

Why is now the appropriate time to launch The Marshall Project, and how does the 2016 presidential campaign play into your plans to participate in a national conversation?

The political climate has shifted, with a growing conservative discontent with the status quo and a millennial generation that seems to have a less fearful, less instinctively punitive mindset. Neil Barsky, the founder and chairman of our venture, likes to say that in 2016 every serious candidate should feel obliged to have a criminal justice plank in his or her platform. Just as candidates are expected to have positions on taxes or the Middle East, they should be expected to have views on policing, courts and incarceration. We’d like to help push these issues into the 2016 spotlight.

When you look at the host of systemic problems facing our courts and prisons, which ones really stand out to you?

There are so many problems in the system — from policing to prosecution to incarceration to parole and reentry, that it’s hard for me to choose one or two. What stands out to me above all is the vicious cycle of it — the way the system scoops up young (mostly) men (mostly) from distressed communities, uproots them from family and community, does little to prepare them for a non-criminal life, and then deposits them back in those same communities.

More broadly, what do you see as the most innovative solutions in this country when it comes to prison reform or criminal justice?

We plan to take a hard look at programs that claim to work, so I won’t attempt to prejudge. The largest share of creative energy seems to be focused on diverting non-threatening people from the path to prison (drug courts, mental health treatment, etc.) and assisting reentry of those who leave prison.

What are some of the challenges that stand in the way of local solutions for criminal justice scaling across the country?

A lack of public urgency, in large part because the Americans with the most political influence are less likely to be exposed to the system in any direct way, and a system of incentives (political and financial) that tends to protect the status quo. And — although this, I believe, is beginning to change where criminal justice is concerned — a polarization of American politics that makes it extremely hard to enact reforms.

What question is no one asking with regards to criminal justice in this country?

Not enough people are asking: What is the criminal justice system for? My answer would be, first and foremost, it’s to keep us safe, and if you proceed from that answer, you have to judge the system severely wanting.

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