Marshall Fund Research on Prisons and Incarceration

May 21 Ahmaud Arbery and the Local Legacy of Lynching How the white vigilante killing of the unarmed, black jogger in Brunswick, Georgia, is both an echo of past violence and a modern call to action.By JENNIFER RAE TAYLOR and KAYLA VINSON

Like many residents of Brunswick, Georgia, where the public landscape features no memorialization of local lynching history, Ahmaud Arbery likely died not knowing the names Wesley Lewis or Henry Jackson. He could not have known the terrible way his death would echo that past. But in recognizing how his and other stories reflect features of the lynching era, we must ensure that our telling challenges the roots of white supremacy and propels us toward justice.


COMMENTARY December 19, 2019 Some of Our Best Work of 2019 Catch up on probing investigations, moving documentaries and the new print magazine that made our year. By TOM MEAGHER

No medicine for the addicted. When people who are being treated for addictions go to jail, they very often lose access to the medications they’ve been prescribed for treatment, like buprenorphine or methadone. But as Beth Schwartzapfel wrote, some people have sued and won, arguing their addictions are disabilities and to deny them their medication is a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. These cases have prompted sheriffs and even the U.S. Justice Department to start to rethink how they treat people with addictions in jail.

Not in our boroughs. Closing New York City’s troubled Rikers Island jail complex seemed like a popular decision, until city officials announced what would replace it: new jails in four boroughs. Maurice Chammah chronicled the furor that erupted in several communities chosen to host the new facilities. And he brought readers into the deliberations among officials tasked with planning the future of pretrial detention in the city. Co-published with The New Yorker

For incarcerated readers. The Marshall Project has always been a digital publication, making it difficult to access by those most affected by the issues we cover: incarcerated people who have extremely restricted access to the internet. This year, with that in mind, Lawrence Bartley created News Inside, a print publication circulated for free in jails and prisons across the country.

Worse than prison. When California passed a series of criminal justice reforms, it was hailed as a national leader in reducing the number of people in prison. But Abbie VanSickle and Manuel Villa found that after several years the reforms have had unexpected consequences. Local jails, often unequipped to hold people for years at a time or to offer treatment and services, have seen their populations balloon and conditions deteriorate. In some counties, people would rather be sentenced to state prison to avoid the overcrowded jails. Co-published with the Los Angeles Times

Real stories from real people. The man who killed his wife and now wants to end domestic violence. A wake for an unknown prisoner. The nightmare of being shipped to a new prison across the country. Learning your mentor in prison is, in fact, your father. The violence and humiliation of showering in prison. Our weekly Life Inside column paints intimate narratives of people living and working in the criminal justice system. And this year we turned it into a weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.

Haunted. Twenty-five years after an arrest was dismissed, a Louisiana man still gets picked up by the police. Eli Hager explains the toll that so-called “ghost warrants” exact from people who can’t get long-dead cases off the books in a system of paper records and bureaucratic malaise. Co-published with the Guardian

Immigrants and crime. Many people who support closing our borders and deporting undocumented people argue that immigrants drive crime. But a pair of stories from Anna Flagg this year dispelled that myth. Through rigorous data analysis, these stories demonstrated that there is no connection between crime and the number of undocumented immigrants in a community and that deporting more people does not reduce crime. The pieces serve as a valuable corrective to misinformation so often employed in the public debate over immigration. Co-published with The New York Times’ Upshot

The veteran. John Phillips has spent 66 years in prison in North Carolina. Handed a life sentence at the age of 18, he now hobbles around a minimum security facility with a cane. Joseph Neff tells the story of the intellectually disabled man nicknamed “Peanut,” and how he fears that he might have to leave prison for the world outside. Co-published with the News & Observer

Paying for crimes. When teens are convicted of crimes, they are often ordered to repay their victims. The problem, critics contend, is that few states cap the fines, saddling kids with large debts that last well into adulthood. Eli Hager wrote about how Maine became only the second state to allow courts to adjust fines for juveniles or to let them pay debts with service rather than cash. Supporters of the new law hope it will help teens move beyond their youthful crimes to better livesCo-published with The Washington Post

Who’s in charge? Many prisons struggle to attract enough staff to prevent violence and keep order. In Mississippi, Joseph Neff and Alysia Santo found one where workers were so taxed, they all but gave up trying. In an internal audit of the privately run Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, the warden acknowledged he let gangs have the run of the prison in hopes they would keep the peace. The result was rampant violence and the stabbing death of a newly transferred prisoner. Co-published with the USA Today Network, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

Making matters worse. The Trump administration has tried many ways to deport more people faster. But as Julia Preston and Andrew R. Calderon showed, nearly every one of those policy changes has failed, and many have had the opposite effect, slowing down the immigration courts and leaving people living for years with fear and uncertainty as they wait for resolution. Co-published with Politico

Will they vote? Several states in recent years have passed measures to permit formerly incarcerated people to vote again. Nicole Lewis spent time with five of the nearly 37,000 people in Louisiana who got back their right to vote. The question for some of them was not always how they’ll vote, but whether they will, as they struggle to regain their independence, to remain employed and to stay out of jail. For others, Election Day couldn’t come soon enough. Co-published with Mother Jones and the Daily Advertiser in Lafayette

Inconceivable. This fall, Netflix debuted its limited series, “Unbelievable,” about a young woman who reports being raped by a burglar only to have the police call her credibility into question. The show is based on “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” the 2015 Marshall Project/ProPublica story that won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. In an essay reflecting on the Netflix series, reporters Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller note that how police treated “Marie” is sadly still too common in rape cases. Co-published with ProPublica

The cost of hope. When your child goes to prison, you’ll do anything you can to try to help them. So when families met a consultant who said he could help their children get out early, they were willing to pay, whatever the cost. In this gripping narrative, Christie Thompson tells the tale of Peter Candlewood and how he made millions by selling families a dream that turned into a nightmare. Co-published with Amazon Original Stories

52,000 and counting. We’ve all seen the headlines about migrants held in detention facilities and children being taken from their parents at the border. But how did it come to this? In this immersive multimedia story, Emily Kassie explains how, in the span of 40 years, the United States built the largest immigrant detention system in the worldCo-published with The Guardian

Where the Dems stand/ The Marshall Project has closely watched how the Democrats vying to run against President Trump in 2020 have been talking about criminal justice. We presented a candidates forum, hosted in a former Pennsylvania prison, where they were questioned by formerly incarcerated people. And our Katie Park and Jamiles Lartey have begun tracking the candidates’ positions on federal and local criminal justice concerns, including clemencyprivate prisonspolice use of force and mandatory minimum sentences. We’ll continue to update the tracker with new issues and will monitor when candidates withdraw from the race until there’s a single Democratic nominee.

The difference a prosecutor can make Across the country, a wave of “progressive prosecutors” have been elected based on promises to take fewer people to court, to reduce sentences and to keep more people from being sent to prison. Because prosecutors’ offices are notoriously opaque, there have been few opportunities to evaluate what really happens when a progressive prosecutor gets elected. Matt Daniels wanted to answer that question when he examined years of data from the Cook County, Illinois, State’s Attorney’s Office. His analysis found that the policies enacted by reformer Kim Foxx have led to a change in how front-line prosecutors do business in Chicago, and thousands of people have avoided jail as a result. Co-published with the Pudding and the Chicago Reporter

Feds, go home There are hundreds of joint task forces across the country that bring together federal and local law enforcement agencies on missions such as fighting drug dealers or tracking potential terrorists. But as Simone Weichselbaum reported, several big cities have abandoned these task forces. That’s because their participation requires that they forego the transparency and accountability—think body cameras and use of force standards—that reformers have been trying to bring to police departments, which has resulted in eroded trust in their communities, and sometimes, deadly consequencesCo-published with Vice and USA Today

A sigh of release. After Oklahoma’s legislature passed a bill making changes to sentences for low-level misdemeanors retroactive, the state released more than 500 people from its prisons. Cary Aspinwall spent time with a group of women on their last day in Eddie Warrior Correctional Center before their release. They were excited, grateful and relieved to be going home years earlier than they had ever expected. Co-published with The Frontier and The Guardian

The ignored hate crime. In many parts of the country, police do a notoriously bad job of collecting data on hate crimes in their communities. But as Weihua Li reported, the numbers are particularly bad for gender-based crimes. The reasons for such inadequate data in these cases include uneven state laws and the fact that many police don’t ask victims the right questions in the first place.

The lasting toll of prison violence. Each year, thousands of people are assaulted in federal prison, and when many return home, they bring deep emotional and physical wounds with them. For four years, Christie Thompson followed the story of Chuck Coma, who was nearly strangled to death in a federal prison in Pennsylvania. Now he is free but can’t live independently due to lingering damage from the attack. Coma’s experience sheds light on the far-reaching effects of prison violence—a battle being fought by an untold number across the country. Co-published with NPR and Mother Jones

Listening to the families. Discussions of criminal justice reform too often leave out a crucial voice: the families of the incarcerated. As the holidays approached, hundreds of families told us about their experiences staying in touch and visiting loved ones in prison. In a five-part series published with the New York Times’ Race/Related newsletter, Nicole Lewis and Beatrix Lockwood shared stories of the unforeseen costs of incarceration to families, the long distances families often must travel to remote prisons (with graphics by Katie Park), and the tribulations that come with trying to video chat with an incarcerated person. In the last two installments, one woman shares how she celebrates Christmas apart from her incarcerated husband, and Celina Fang tells the story of a family who trekked to a pre-holidays visit to see a loved one in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Co-published with The New York Times Race/Related.

December 17, 2019 How to Fix Our Prisons? Let The Public Inside.We need a broad national effort to recruit and place volunteers to educate and counsel incarcerated people.By NEIL BARSKY

“Let Us In.”

The public should see firsthand the conditions within the walls, to meet the men and women who reside in our prisons, to look them in the eye, shake their hands and teach them skills they can use once they are released. After all, 90 percent of them will end up back among us.

Recent college graduates should receive stipends to teach prisoners languishing with few opportunities for instruction in math or history. Retired schoolteachers could teach literature or science classes. Local college students could receive credit for prison work. And people released from prison should be invited back to tell the men and women they left behind about life on the outside.

Yes, some prisons already have programs that allow outsiders inside the walls for teaching and counseling. But there aren’t enough of them. What I’m talking about is a thorough effort to bring down the wall separating the incarcerated and the free. Let Us In could change the relationship between the public and the imprisoned. Like President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps, it could inspire a generation of Americans to engage in the betterment of our fragile world.

This is how it would work.

First, the president would state clearly that mass incarceration is a failed system. It created, in the words of Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” a “racial caste system” that has disproportionately punished a generation of young, usually male, people of color. The president must speak to people’s pain, and acknowledge that we imprison too many people for too long, and at a cost to taxpayers of billions of dollars a year.

Because only 10 percent of incarcerated Americans are in federal custody, the president has limited scope for shrinking the prison population. What the president can do is use the office as a bully pulpit to change the criminal justice narrative, and to adopt what “Reimagining Justice,” a report by the Vera Institute of Justice, proposes: a policy of incarceration whose “foundational value” is “human dignity.”

To that end, the president would assemble a diverse group of criminal justice experts—including corrections and law enforcement officials, former inmates and their families, defense lawyers, judges and inmate advocates—to develop a national program to create paths for trained volunteers and professionals to work inside prisons wherever safety allows.

Let Us In must be more than “tourism within walls”; for the volunteers to be able to go inside the walls to dispense their skills and knowledge, serious consideration must be given to training and safety.

Within two years, the organization could be spun off from the government, and a nonprofit corporation would take its place. Imagine former Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama as honorary chairmen. Eventually, the program would be financed by a combination of government grants and nonprofit contributions, much like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or Americorp’s Vista program.

I’ve already witnessed the power of such programs on a smaller scale. At Green Haven and Fishkill Correctional Facilities in New York, I watched theatrical performances by incarcerated men sponsored by Rehabilitation Through the Arts. At San Quentin State Prison in California, I met with the prison newspaper’s staff and attended a finance class led by a self-taught instructor serving a life sentence. While visiting the Osborne Association’s parenting program at Sing Sing prison in Osborne, N.Y., with a group of family court judges, I witnessed incarcerated men plead for visitation privileges with their children. “When I see you men taking these programs, I know you are serious,” said one judge.

I’ve met graduates and instructors from Bard and Bennington Colleges’ degree programs in prisons. And at my organization, The Marshall Project, two members of our staff received degrees from Mercy College while in prison through the Hudson Link Program for Higher Education in Prison, which provides college education in prison.

Several years ago, I was at San Quentin to participate in a series of TEDx talks. I invited an editor friend who lived nearby. He sat next to an incarcerated man who worked on San Quentin’s magazine, and he invited my friend to help as a volunteer. For the next two years, my friend went twice a week to San Quentin to help the staff publish their magazine. “This was a life-changing experience,” he told me.

As inspiring as these programs may be, they aren’t enough to meet the monumental need. Each year, 3,000 volunteers pass through the doors of San Quentin, in densely populated and liberal Marin County, offering everything from yoga to computer training to psychotherapy classes. But in many prisons around the country, particularly those in remote locales, volunteers can be hard to come by.

Let Us In must not be a substitute for more difficult prison reforms. The bail, sentencing, policing and parole systems still cry out for radical changes, and reform efforts will require a deliberate, state-by-state process.

But, if executed properly, Let Us In would achieve several goals at once.

It will provide tools for the incarcerated to lead healthy, productive lives once they leave prison. It is shameful that they are often released as damaged men and women, with few skills to cope in society. Educational and other programs offer incentives for the incarcerated, which enlightened superintendents will embrace.

And finally, Let Us In would create a generation of prison reform proponents—volunteers who will take their experiences back to their communities, who will vote and who will one day employ the formerly incarcerated when they rejoin their communities.

The civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson says there are four things necessary to confront injustice in America: getting close to the issue, changing the narrative, fighting hopelessness and getting uncomfortable.

Let Us In will go a long way toward achieving these goals, and it would hold participating institutions accountable to the citizens who routinely pass through its doors.

It might also make the rest of us a little uncomfortable. And that’s O.K. too.

June 19, 2019 The Case for Abolition“We have grown weary of worn-out debates over the feasibility of a world without prisons.” By RUTH WILSON GILMORE and JAMES KILGORE

Our belief in abolition is first and foremost philosophical. It grew from watching, experiencing, and opposing decades of reliance on concrete and steel cages as catch-all solutions to social problems. We want a society that centers freedom and justice instead of profit and punishment.

Locking people up does not provide adequate housing, proper mental health treatment or living wage jobs, nor does it make us safe in any other way. Moreover, reforms that embody electronic monitoring or other forms of e-carceration, build gender-responsive jails or broaden the scope of parole and other forms of carceral control only deepen our conviction that fundamental change is the only path.

While we value philosophy, we have also grown weary of worn-out debates over the feasibility of a world without prisons and whether we would like to abolish prison for Dylann Roof. We prefer to talk about what we do.

Ultimately, abolition is a practical program of change rooted in how people sustain and improve their lives, cobbling together insights and strategies from disparate, connected struggles. We know we won’t bulldoze prisons and jails tomorrow, but as long as they continue to be advanced as the solution, all of the inequalities displaced to crime and punishment will persist. We’re in a long game.

Authors of reforms claim expertise about what “the public” will accept, as if it were a single entity that’s already made its mind about everything. But people frequently broaden their commitments because they learn about, and link to, previously unfamiliar struggles. These are not the public experts invoke but a public resolved to pursue policies and plans to realize their goals. In other words, a public is made. How do we know? Experience.

To forge such a public, for decades abolitionists have been doing everything we can imagine to bring about change. We stand on the frontlines to oppose all forms of state violence.

We work with communities sited for prisons to fight expansion, while organizing to secure decent wages and housing in the regional economy. We work with Republican ranchers worried about the water table, and with undocumented agricultural workers vulnerable to pesticides and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We work with city managers and residents of prison towns disappointed in lockups touted for economic development that never deliver. We document the cultural and environmental degradation resulting from cities of incarcerated people deprived of their civil rights, write handbooks and advise rural and regional development experts on alternative projects. We work with unions, on strategy to develop long-term goals for job protection, environmental justice and membership growth—especially because half the U.S. labor force has some record of criminalization that makes employment insecure and depresses wages.

We were prompted to write by reading Bill Keller’s essay last week in The Marshall Project asking “What Do Abolitionists Really Want?” We took issue with many of his points and felt, by not quoting abolitionists, he echoed historical precedents of white people asking what Black people want, or men debating Roe v. Wade. But he got one thing right: Abolition is thriving, something he can’t quite figure out.

Abolition is thriving because our organizational energies draw on local and international infrastructures of mutual assistance like clubs, political organizations, faith communities, unions and neighborhood associations, previous and ongoing rounds of long-term organizing and widespread desires for greater democratic participation. Our ranks increasingly include those directly affected by incarceration and all forms of violence and trauma.

Our work thrives because we recognize that reform has assumed new, troubling shapes. From New York City to Los Angeles, and across rural America, jail expansion has been chugging along largely because law enforcement continues to absorb social welfare work—mental and physical health, education, family unification. To imagine a world without prisons and jails is to imagine a world in which social welfare is a right, not a luxury.

Every U.S. delegation that jets off to Scandinavia to study prisons comes back declaring they’ve seen a future they didn’t actually look at. As career criminal justice experts, they thought they could isolate a prison system from its context: tax, housing, health care, education, transportation, immigration and other policies. Everyone who says it’s unrealistic to demand more willfully ignores the fact that to use law enforcement, as the U.S. does, to manage the fallout from cutbacks in social services and the upward rush in income and wealth is breathtakingly expensive, while it cheapens human life.

Abolitionists have brought to the struggle against what came to be called “mass incarceration” an array of experiences in which we learned how to fight on many fronts at once: how to organize, promote ideas and bargain in the political arena. In other words, we work the entire ecology of precarious existence that shapes, but is not bounded by, the aggrandizing “criminal justice system,” including housing, jobs, education, income, faith, environment, status. Far from being starry-eyed idealists, we are specialists in the daily grind of the deliberate, patient and persistent work necessary for what we want–freedom and justice.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore is Professor of Geography at the CUNY Graduate Center. A co-founder of many social justice organizations, her research and writing link political, economic and environmental struggles in the growing local, regional and international movement for abolition.

James Kilgore is a Media Justice Fellow at Media Justice. Since spending six and a half years in federal and state prisons, he has written widely on issues of mass incarceration, labor, and electronic monitoring, including “Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time ” (The New Press, 2015).

COMMENTARY May 31, 2019 It’s Time to Change the Way the Media Covers Crime Ava DuVernay’s ‘When They See Us’ revisits the Central Park jogger case. Here’s what we’ve learned since then.


On April 21, 1989, the New York Daily News ran a story about a young investment banker who was badly beaten and repeatedly raped while jogging in Central Park. Its headline, “Wolf Pack’s Prey,” described how the woman was “left for dead by a wolf pack of more than dozen young teenagers.” News stories about the crime appeared in every major media outlet and made the term “wilding” part of the national lexicon. The stories rarely described the perpetrators as “alleged.”

The trouble was, the “pack” wasn’t responsible for the attack, although five young men arrested soon thereafter were convicted of the crime and served between six and 13 years. In 2002, they were exonerated after a convicted rapist confessed to having raped the woman and police matched his DNA to the crime scene.This commentary was published in partnership with the Los Angeles Times.

The story of these five young men of color is again in the news because of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series, “When They See Us,” which focuses on the experiences of the boys who were wrongly accused. For media outlets, the series, which is available for streaming on May 31, provides a good opportunity to examine how news coverage has contributed to wrongful convictions and, more generally, to decades of draconian criminal justice policy.

After the real rapist confessed, some journalists—not many—conceded that they had bought in too readily to a false narrative concocted by police and prosecutors. LynNell Hancock, who worked for the New York Daily News at the time, pointed out in 2003 that the real “wolf pack” had been the media. There are plenty of examples of times the media wrongly joined that pack. “Crack crazed teen stabs mom to death” screamed a New York Post headline about 16-year-old Huwe Burton in the same year as the Central Park jogger story. The son turned out not to have been the perpetrator, although he served nearly 20 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit before his conviction was officially overturned this year.

In 1994, three teenagers were convicted of murdering three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, after a spate of headlines like, “Teen Describes ‘Cult’ Torture of Boys.” One story included quotes from an unnamed source claiming she’d seen one of the defendants drink his girlfriend’s blood. They served 18 years before being exonerated.

Obviously the media aren’t solely to blame for such wrongful convictions. Jim Dwyer, who wrote about the Central Park jogger case for Newsday, described the story as “a centrifuge [in which e]veryone was pinned into a position—the press, the police, the prosecution—and no one could press the stop button.” And it’s worth noting that journalists also help get people like the West Memphis Three out of prison, by digging into old cases and getting them back on the front page (though rarely is the exoneration covered as heavily as the crime).

But we journalists have also helped drive decades of harsh criminal justice policy. In the American media, coverage of violent crime rose sharply just as the rate of violent crime actually began to fall. From 1990 to 1992, the evening broadcasts of the three major networks averaged fewer than 100 murder stories each year. By 1999, they were broadcasting an average of 511 murder stories per year, although the murder rate plummeted 40 percent during the 1990s. It has fallen further since, to its lowest rate in 40 years. Yet crime remains the number one topic on local television news. According to one study, people who watch television news every day are 16 percent more likely to support punitive criminal justice policies.

One thing that drove the increased crime coverage was shrinking media budgets. Producing an hour-long television “news magazine” costs a fraction of what it does for an hour of a scripted show—and 20 percent to 40 percent of TV news magazines are devoted to crime, notes Duke University law professor Sara Sun Beale. “Entertainment increasingly means crime and justice,” she says.

Huwe Burton was accused of killing his mother in 1989 though he maintained that he did not commit the crime. He was exonerated in 2019. CLARENCE DAVIS/NY DAILY NEWS, VIA GETTY IMAGES

And it’s easier to cover crime as an event than to cover criminal justice policy. The Marshall Project, where I work, is able to cover criminal justice extensively (and individual crimes almost not at all), primarily because we are a nonprofit.

With prison populations now falling slightly and crime rates near historic lows, it seems like the right time to change how we cover crime. But that hasn’t happened yet. In fact, the term “wilding” popped up just last month in a story about black teenagers in Chicago.

Too often, news stories reinforce racial stereotypes. In the early 2000s, for example, a study found that black people were four times as likely to be represented as criminals than as police in television news, and the effects of that linger. The presence of more people of color in American newsrooms might help to mediate these biases, but U.S. newsrooms remain stubbornly monochromatic. The most recent study from the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that diversity has “lost ground” in recent years. People of color represented only 22 percent of the workforce in newsrooms that responded to their survey. And most did not even bother to respond. (The Marshall Project’s diversity report is here.)

Donald Trump infamously took out full-page ads calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty so that the “Central Park Five” could be executed. Journalists who rush to condemn that travesty would do well to examine how the media cover criminal justice, both then and today.

A previous version of this story incorrectly described LynNell Hancock’s position at The New York Daily News. She worked at the paper but did not cover the Central Park jogger case.

May 10, 2019 Let’s Make It Easier for Kids to Visit Incarcerated Parents Nonprofits in a handful of states provide transportation to help children visit their imprisoned parents. Now New York may revive a state-funded free busing program.By JAIME JOYCE

May 1, 2019 How Fear Contributes to Cops’ Use of Deadly Force Police employ lethal violence in response to perceived threats at vastly different rates across the country. Racial bias is just one factor.By BRENDAN O’FLAHERTY and RAJIV SETHI

Police officers in the United States kill more than 1,000 civilians a year, while German and British police together kill about 10. Startling as such international comparisons are, there are also dramatic differences within the United States. Californians are four times more likely to face deadly force than residents of New York State, and residents of Arizona and New Mexico are eight times more likely to be killed by police than their counterparts in Connecticut.

In each of the nation’s largest cities, there are significant racial disparities in the likelihood of being killed by police: black residents of Houston are four times more likely to face deadly force than whites; black residents of New York and Los Angeles are six to seven times more likely to die in police shootings, and black residents of Chicago are 18 times more likely to be killed by police. Yet regional differences in the overall incidence of lethal force are so great that whites in Houston have a higher likelihood of being killed by police than black residents of New York City do.

Such extreme geographic variations suggest that selection, training, leadership and organizational culture have considerable impact on the way officers respond to perceived threats and defuse situations before they become threatening. Some powerful historical evidence supports this view.

During the summer of 1967, police and military resources were deployed on a large scale to quell civil disturbances in scores of American cities. In Newark and Detroit alone, more than 50 civilians were killed in less than a week. Many of the officers and guardsmen involved were young, inexperienced and unfamiliar with local conditions. They especially were afraid of sniper attacks, and this fear led to indiscriminate firing and multiple fatalities. According to the Kerner Commission report on the protests, “most reported sniping incidents were demonstrated to be gunfire by either police or National Guardsmen… The climate of fear and expectation of violence created by such exaggerated, sometimes totally erroneous, reports demonstrates the serious risks of overreaction and excessive use of force.”

In contrast with the jittery police and guardsmen, one section of Detroit was policed by professional soldiers, one-fifth of them black, under the command of General John L. Throckmorton. Recognizing that the city was “saturated with fear,” Throckmorton “felt that the major task of the troops was to… restore an air of normalcy.” Within hours of their arrival, “the area occupied by them was the quietest in the city,” the Kerner Commission found. The troops “had strict orders not to fire unless they could see the specific person at whom they were aiming,” and mass fire was forbidden. Over five days, Throckmorton’s troops expended about 200 rounds of ammunition, almost none of it after the first few hours. Meanwhile, in Newark, guardsmen and state police expended more than 3,000 rounds in three days.

These examples from the ‘60s provide a stark illustration of the fact that the objective threats officers face are not the only reasons for variations in their use of lethal force.

There is another important lesson to be learned from the summer of 1967: A climate of fear produces powerful incentives for preemptive killing. Those who are fearful are dangerous, and those who are seen as dangerous have reason to be afraid.

This link between fearsomeness and fearfulness can help us understand deadly violence more generally. People who live in areas where most homicides remain unsolved know they can be killed with impunity. As a result, they have strong incentives to kill preemptively. Their own fear makes them more feared by others and hence more likely to be killed. These cascading beliefs can result in very high homicide rates in some communities.

Breaking such cycles of violence calls for an increase in the rates at which homicides are solved, which depends heavily on witness cooperation. But witnesses are reluctant to come forward when they distrust or despise police. Strategies that involve generalized aggression, including stops and searches at low levels of suspicion, end up ensnaring and alienating large numbers of innocent people and severely damage police-community relations. Even as minor infractions get punished with greater certainty, major crimes requiring witness cooperation become harder to solve.

During the peak years of New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy, officers conducted more than half a million street stops annually. Recent research has shown that most of these stops were predictably unproductive—a much smaller and more carefully targeted use of the policy could have resulted in almost the same rates of weapon recovery. Indeed, the incidence of such stops is now at less than 2 percent of peak rates, even as the city’s murder rate has fallen to levels not seen since the 1950s. Similarly, in Oakland, murder rates have reached a two-decade low, on the heels of a concerted effort to prevent retaliatory killings and improve community relations.

Whether or not such changes can take root elsewhere remains an open question. But the variations across time and space teach us that policing is not an immutable form of American exceptionalism that we are destined to live with forever. In this there is a ray of hope, even in an otherwise bleak landscape.

Brendan O’Flaherty is professor of economics at Columbia University. Rajiv Sethi is professor of economics at Barnard College, Columbia University, and external professor at the Santa Fe Institute. Their book, “Shadows of Doubt: Stereotypes, Crime, and the Pursuit of Justice” was published by Harvard University Press this month.

March 21, 2019 “Medicare for All” Is Missing a Vital Group: The Incarcerated “Can criminal justice reform succeed without addressing the health of incarcerated people?”By ASHWIN VASAN

 January 15, 2019 Why We Bear Witness: Speaking Uncomfortable Truths About Immigration We Are Witnesses: Becoming an American sparks a difficult but honest conversation about the U.S. immigration system.By JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS

January 14, 2019 What Becoming an American Means NowThe Marshall Project’s new film series takes you inside the U.S. immigration system through personal, poignant testimonials.By NEIL BARSKY

COMMENTARY December 27, 2018Some of Our Best Work in 2018 Finish the year strong with journalism that makes a difference.By GERALDINE SEALEY

December 20, 2018 Out From the Holocaust Germany reckoned with its past to build a better justice system. America should too.By AMY L. SOLOMON

After leaving Neuengamme, we toured three modern prisons: Billwerder in Hamburg, a large institution for people sentenced from six months to two years; Heidering in Berlin, a prison for men sentenced up to five years; and an “open prison,” where people sleep at night but spend their days working and accessing treatment and services in the community.

What I saw was remarkable. There are open spaces and lots of light. Windows have bars but open, so you can breathe fresh air. There is art. In Germany, 1 percent of any public project budget must be devoted to art. That struck me—people in prison are still considered citizens of their towns and country.

Those incarcerated generally have their own private rooms. They are encouraged to call home to keep family relationships intact. Kitchens in the units encourage cooking and community.

It’s the overall culture that feels most foreign. Relationships with staff are respectful and collegial, not adversarial. People who are incarcerated are seen and treated as people—not inmates, convicts, or “other.” My colleague and friend Daryl Atkinson, who was incarcerated in Alabama in the 1990s, was struck to hear correctional officers calling those incarcerated by their names. “Hey, inmate!” had been his experience.

In preparation for my trip, I researched my grandfather’s experience. To my surprise, a draft memoir I’d never known about materialized, his firsthand accounts that had been locked away in a briefcase. One of his stories describes Zeilsheim Displaced Persons Camp, where newly-freed Jews lived because they didn’t know where else to go. It was November 1945, and my grandfather was going home. They presented him with a prayer book that had been hidden throughout the war—tucked under mattresses, under manure piles, and, he wrote, “even wrapped between the emaciated legs of women who were determined that it, at least, should survive, even if they did not.”

My grandfather accepted the book and pledged to treasure it. As he left the camp, people called out, “Vergisst uns nicht!” Don’t forget us, Rabbi—and don’t let the world forget what happened to us.

Amy Solomon, center, and the Vera Institute contingent at Heidering Prison in Berlin. VERA INSTITUTE OF JUSTICE

To my surprise, Germany isn’t carrying around its past like some dark burden. It confronts it daily, and its lessons shape the country’s future.

The underpinnings of the German prison system are respect, rehabilitation and reintegration. More than a philosophy or a slogan painted on a prison wall, it’s written into law. The German Constitution states that “human dignity shall be inviolable.” The German Prison Act reinforces this view by establishing that the sole objective of incarceration is rehabilitation, so that people will return to their communities and lead crime-free and productive lives.

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In fact, the Germans view a person’s loss of liberty as the full punishment. Further punishments—terrible conditions and deprivations—are neither expected nor accepted. The goal is to prepare people to go home to be better parents, neighbors and colleagues. Prison is structured to be as close to life on the outside as possible.

Because of this fundamental framing, prison is an option of last resort. America’s incarceration rate is about 10 times higher than the German rate, and only 6 percent of people sentenced in German courts receive a prison sentence. Everyone else receives community-based sanctions, such as day fines or community service. For those who do receive prison sentences, nine out of 10 will serve less than two years. And very few experience additional levels of punishment, such as solitary confinement, all too common in the United States.

A resident’s living quarters at Heidering Prison in Berlin. VERA INSTITUTE OF JUSTICE

In the United States, our criminal justice system exploits and builds on the ugly legacy of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow laws. A seminal report estimates one in three black men will be incarcerated in their lifetimes, one in 13 black adults cannot vote due to felony convictions, and one in nine black children has a parent in jail or prison.

Germany has taken its horrific history into account and built a modern criminal justice system in response. The structural underpinnings of its rehabilitation model, the physical environment of its prisons and the culture of respect are testament to what change can look like. As Connecticut Department of Corrections Commissioner Scott Semple observed after a particularly intense day: “This is about creating a place that, if our son or daughter had to be here, we’d have faith they would come out better people, not damaged people.”

I still struggle with the idea of commending Germany’s prison system. The Holocaust stole human dignity from a generation of Jewish people and many others in Europe and around the world. My deeply ingrained feelings of distrust, disgust and skepticism are not irrational or uncommon—similar to why so many people of color do not trust America’s criminal justice system today.

Like others, I’ve spent my career trying to improve incarceration policy and eliminate barriers to successful reentry. But these efforts were largely framed in race-neutral and therefore history-neutral terms. As we reimagine what prisons in America should be, I now see that we must start by acknowledging the oppression, discrimination, and racism that led us to this point and still exist in the system today.

“Never forget” is a common refrain from the Holocaust. America cannot forget, either. We must stand together to say “never again” and then demonstrate our commitment to human dignity, and a true justice system, for all our people.

Amy L. Solomon is Vice President of Criminal Justice at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. She may be reached at

Disclosure: The Arnold Foundation is a funder of The Marshall Project.

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