In the Penal Colony: The Marshall Project (part two of three)

In a post last week I described America’s prison-industrial complex and provided some unsettling facts about the explosive growth of our nation’s incarcerated populations. In this post, I’d like to turn our attention to some phenomenal work being done by a newly launched journalism outlet to help make the criminal justice system and prison sentencing reform a reality.

Launched in November by former Wall Street Journal reporter and hedge fund manager Neil Barsky, and led by former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, The Marshall Project is a not-for-profit non-partisan news organization that exists to spur “a national conversation about criminal justice.” The website promises to be a digital hub for news and debate about our legal and corrections systems. Rather than advocacy driven, Keller envisions the “single-issue site with a million story possibilities” as being a home for “journalism with a sense of purpose.” Keller recently told PBS anchor Jack Ford: “The idea is to try to restore some of the aggressive accountability coverage of the criminal justice system that’s been lost as the American media downsizes in a lot of really important ways.”

In his launch letter, Barsky writes how the inspiration for the project came from his reading two powerful books: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove. The first aimed to demonstrate how mass incarceration “represents the third phase of African-American oppression in the United States, after slavery and Jim Crow.” Considering Alexander’s thesis, Barsky writes: “Intent can be difficult to prove; impact is irrefutable.” King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, meanwhile, is the true-life account of the 1949 case of four African-American males falsely accused of rape in Lake County, FL. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall bravely but futilely fought in Florida’s courts to spare the young men’s lives and it is in his honor that the news organization is named.

In a major coup, the Marshall Project sought and found the best journalists in the business. Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning 30-year veteran of The New York Times, who stresses in a letter from the editor that while the Marshall Project is non-partisan and non-ideological, the organization has an indelible sense of mission. “We want to move the discussion of our institutions of justice—law enforcement, courts, prisons, probation—to a more central place in our national dialogue.”

In an interview with VOX describing his decision to leave the Times to join the startup, Keller suggests how all-encompassing a subject like America’s criminal justice system really is: “. . . not just the very obvious—law enforcement, the courts, the corrections system—but immigration, drug policy, how we treat juveniles. It gets into the realm of education; race, obviously; inequality, obviously. It’s a subject that gives you tremendous license to write about the society we live in.”

The arrival of the Marshall Project comes at the right time. From the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO this August, to “political odd couple” Rand Paul and Cory Booker teaming up to support sentencing reform, it seems that the public is ready to open a dialogue about America’s criminal justice system. In my next post on the topic, I’ll talk about additional strides that are happening in education and employment that seek to keep people from getting ensnared in our nation’s penal colony.

Next week, in part three, I will look at other laudatory efforts being made in three areas to help make prison sentencing reform a reality: education, jobs, and scientific testing.

Head here to learn more about The Marshall Project and the important work they’re doing.

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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