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Let’s (Continue to) Talk About Criminal Justice in America

A newly launched non-partisan news organization, The Marshall Project, is dedicated to covering criminal justice issues in America in a just, fair, and humane manner.

Published: November 17, 2014

It was a few years after the United States Supreme Court ended de jure segregation in Brown v. Board of Education and Thurgood Marshall, the great civil rights lawyer of his era, was being interviewed on television by Mike Wallace. What did Marshall think of President Dwight Eisenhower’s tepid response to the Court’s unanimous and unanimously controversial decision? Wallace asked. Not much, was the response. Marshall chastised the president for failing to follow up Brown with decisive words and deeds signaling the country that the ruling would and should be respected even by those who opposed its merits.

“Our moral leadership should come from the top executive of the government,” Marshall told Wallace. “It’s his responsibility and he can’t duck it.” Marshall was right then and if he were still alive today he would be saying the same thing to all of us about the sorry state of criminal justice in America. It is our responsibility, every one of us, to ensure that our criminal justice systems are just, and fair, and humane, and that each day the actors within it live up to their constitutional obligations. We can’t duck this, none of us can, and that’s one of the reasons why I joined the aptly-named Marshall Project, the new not-for-profit, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to coverage of criminal justice in America.

We launched our website this past weekend—you can check it out here—and in the coming days and weeks you’ll get a sense of what we are trying to achieve. We’ll have investigative pieces, like the series posted this weekend by Pulitzer-winner Ken Armstrong on the unintended consequences of the Clinton-era law designed to expedite capital appeals. We’ll have daily coverage of breaking news about criminal justice. We will have features and profiles and graphs and numbers. And we will have a commentary section, upon which I’ll be focused, in which we’ll try to bring together all sorts of different voices to foster a national conversation about criminal justice.

This last point is crucial. We want to hear from prosecutors as often as we hear from defense attorneys, from police officers as often as we hear from those who believe they have been mistreated by the police. We want to hear especially from the growing number of conservative voices who see in criminal justice reform a way to reduce the footprint of government while reducing the impact of crime and punishment upon the pocketbooks of taxpayers. We want to hear from scholars who disagree earnestly with one another about the way to achieve this reform or even upon whether it can be achieved at all.

Just last week, for example, officials from the ACLU, the Heritage Foundation, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and Right on Crime met to discuss criminal justice reform at an event sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute. It is this spirit of bipartisan cooperation, or at least communication and mutual respect, we want to foster and enhance as we move forward with commentary at the Marshall Project. We want to hear from the justice experts at the Brennan Center, of course, but also from folks at the Cato Institute. We want to talk with experts from the Center for Constitutional Rights but also those from the Manhattan Institute. There are an awful lot of smart people with interesting things to say these days about criminal justice and we aim to give them a forum to say it. 

And all of these conversations, I hope, will help illustrate that America is not blind to the vast gulf that exists between the justice systems we tell our children we have and the one we actually have. We have a duty, all of us, to acknowledge over and over again that the constitutional right to counsel, for example, has been rendered meaningless to millions of Americans or that thousands of our fellow citizens, many of them mentally ill or otherwise disabled, are languishing in our prisons in the most deplorable conditions. We have an obligation to tell stories of how often we spend more on prisons than we do on schools and what impact this perverse dichotomy has upon our communities.

Only by repeating these grim truths, only by confronting them directly, will we be able to muster the political will and the moral courage to fix them. As we see in the words of Senators Rand Paul and Cory Booker, as we hear from Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, as Marc Levin and Marc Mauer surely will stipulate, this is not a Republican or Democratic problem. It is our problem, our responsibility, and we can’t duck it. If you want to be part of this conversation, if you have something smart to say, please get in touch with me over at Marshall.