Progressives are winning when it comes to criminal justice. They don't win all the time, but the fact is that voters are looking for something different.
"The outlines of the possible are already upon us." That was the conclusion of Josie Duffy Rice in an article entitled 'Abolition's Promise.' It appeared in the September edition of Vanity Fair, a special issue edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates and featuring a cover portrait of Breonna Taylor, the young Black medical worker shot dead in her home by Louisville police in March.
Duffy Rice's writing is notable for its optimism and for its faith in the power of big ideas. But it's an optimism grounded in an activist's sense of the victories that can wrested from the current moment, and of the value of making a difference in people's lives in the here and now.
Duffy Rice is a sought-after commentator on the criminal justice system. Her writing appears regularly in a range of well-known publications, and she's a guest host of Slate's Political Gabfest. She's also the president of the online news site, The Appeal, and the host of its podcast, Justice in America.
After a long year in America for justice, Duffy Rice talks with New Thinking host Matt Watkins about the prospects for the movement to change—or remake—this country's justice system. Their conversation touches on everything from the presidential election and "defund the police," to the role of the media in promoting, or thwarting, meaningful reforms.
"We're in a generational struggle," Duffy Rice explains, "but that's okay, if I'm fighting a big fight."
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
Matt WATKINS: Welcome to New Thinking from the Center for Court Innovation. I'm Matt Watkins.
"The outlines of the possible are already upon us." That was the conclusion of my guest today, Josie Duffy Rice, in an article entitled, 'Abolition's Promise.' It ran in the September edition of Vanity Fair. The issue was edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates and featured a cover portrait of Breonna Taylor.
What I've always liked so much about Duffy Rice's writing is her faith in the power of big ideas. But it's a faith grounded in an activist's sense of the possibilities of the current moment, and of the value of making a difference in people's lives in the here and now.
There's a good chance you know Josie already. Her writing appears regularly in a range of well-known publications, and she's a guest host of Slate's Political Gabfest. She's also the president of the online news site, The Appeal, and the host of its podcast, Justice in America.
After a long year in America for justice, I thought it was an excellent moment to reach out to Josie and get her take on the movement to change or remake this country's justice system. That is to say, there was a lot of ground to cover. I reached Josie at her home in Atlanta.
Well, Josie, first off, thank you so much for doing this. This is obviously not an easy time period for anybody, but you've had some joyous news recently with the arrival of your second child, so congratulations for that.
Josie DUFFY RICE: Thank you and thank you so much for having me. I love this podcast. I've used it so much in developing Justice in America and thinking about this stuff. I have to tell you, I'm really honored to be here.
WATKINS: That's very kind of you to say. I appreciate it. I thought we could start with the elephant in the room which is, I guess, the federal election.
DUFFY RICE: Oh, was there a federal election lately?
WATKINS: Yeah, I heard a little bit about it. I mean, you're in Georgia, right? So you've-
DUFFY RICE: I am.
WATKINS: ...been at the epicenter of the madness But if we look at the issues that you worked so hard on, criminal justice—with the caveat, of course, that the federal government doesn't actually have that much power when it comes to changing the criminal justice system—how do you think that the prospect of achieving meaningful criminal justice change has shifted with the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris?
DUFFY RICE: Like you said, I'm always wary of prescribing too much power to the federal government in terms of policy, just because they don't shape as much criminal justice policy as localities and states do. That being said, they do shape values. They shape tone. They shape the way that people can think about these issues.
I think the fact that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris both have kind of a complicated history in this field, and yet have evolved and changed and seen their perspective on this change is a good sign. I also think there are some meaningful things that could happen.
Right off the bat, we could have a huge swath of pardons coming out of the office from the President. We could see a real change in the pardon office at DOJ and the process of pardoning, because it's traditionally been prosecutors who cull the field for the President to decide who they're going to pardon. I think it's really ripe for change in that office.
I also think there are other important things: consent decrees coming out of DOJ—the idea that we have a Department of Justice that is willing to hold police departments and police officers accountable. Again, there's only so much they can do; DOJ is only so big, and there's a lot of corruption in police departments across the country that is not going to get addressed by DOJ.
But, even the idea that they're willing to. What we've seen in the past four years is that we have a Department of Justice and a President who's just categorically unwilling to hold law enforcement accountable. That, in itself, I think, is going to change, I hope, under the new administration and that's relieving.
I'll just say the last thing is that, being in a Donald Trump era, living under a Donald Trump presidency, I think on both a policy level, a media level, as a writer, as a lawyer, it's very hard to play offense in general with a conservative administration.
It's much harder to play offense when the conservative administration is the Donald Trump administration which thrives in chaos and is constantly embroiled in scandal, is constantly causing some sort of mayhem that day. It just doesn't really allow people in any field, on any topic, to hunker down and make the kind of progressive change or push for the kind of progressive change that we want.
I was talking to my in-laws about the new cabinet picks and in some ways I have very strong opinions and in other ways I'm like, "As long as we're not ... Donald Trump isn't in this office." Already, we're going to have a much easier time.
WATKINS: We can't look into the hearts of either Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, but when you talk about how much they have evolved in their respective complicated relationships to criminal justice issues, a lot of their evolution has to go down to on-the-ground activism and on-the-ground organizing and the way the conversation about criminal justice has shifted for the good in the last years.
DUFFY RICE: Like many people, I think that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, when they did wrong, when made mistakes, they really believed they were doing right. That has historically been the case in criminal justice. This has been a bipartisan effort to lock up people for years. The thought was this not only lowers crime, it makes people better, stick over the carrot, this is how we change things.
Hindsight's always 20/20 and there's plenty that people should've known in the moment. But now, with the destruction of the past few decades, it really gives an opportunity to look back and think, "Is this actually how we want to handle crime, harm, wrongdoing, in a society?" I think we actually have an opportunity to change that.
WATKINS: When you talk about a bipartisan view on things, I've seen a spate of renewed reporting on this notion that criminal justice reform is a bipartisan issue. How do you see that position right now?
DUFFY RICE: I'm not convinced. In fact, maybe I'm convinced in the other direction, that criminal justice is being hindered by both parties. On some level I think the Democrats, and certainly the more left of the left, understands that this is an opportunity for change and is open to change. I think the right is not even as open to change as they were four or five years ago. There's a lot of lip service paid to criminal justice reform and when you actually see what happens on the ground it's pretty unimpressive.
But, that being said, across the political spectrum, Democrats and Republicans have been really negative about “defund the police," for example. They've blamed Democratic congressional losses on this idea of defunding the police. They've been, I think, condescending and punishing to organizers who have been doing this work for a long time. They've really been unwilling, many of them, to imagine a new world when it comes to criminal justice.
Yeah, maybe there's “criminal justice reform,” whatever that means, that might be possible in a bipartisan sense. That is to say, there may be some sentencing laws that could pass; perhaps reforms on the margins. When we're talking about creating a new world, rethinking what criminal justice is, and what our system is, and what our society looks like, I actually think we're bipartisan in a bad way. There are very few people with the bravery, the courage, and the insight to be able to think about this in a revolutionary way.
WATKINS: To be cynical, at times, it can feel like there's a bipartisan consensus that we should ban the practice of shackling pregnant incarcerated women in labor. But, again, that's setting the bar pretty low.
DUFFY RICE: That's the thing, right? Someone says, "We're not going to shackle pregnant women anymore," and everyone says, "Yay, we did it, congrats to us!” When it really, to me, is a sign that some deep soul-searching is required.
The idea that we could ever think that that's not only okay, but necessary is shocking to me. We are still patting ourselves on the back for things that should be basic human rights afforded to every single person.
Another example would be voting rights. The disenfranchisement of people who have been convicted of crimes. To me, it's a no-brainer—everybody should be allowed to vote. We do not have a strong democracy if every eligible person, meaning over the age of 18, does not have the right to vote.
We're still arguing the details of that! Overall, it is indicative of a rot in our society that this is even a question.
WATKINS: In November, people weren't just voting for a President. There were also a lot of criminal justice issues on the ballot in states across the country. That's something that The Appeal where you’re president covers so well through the great work of Daniel Nichanian.
Are there some results there that you would like to particularly highlight? I mean, I was struck, as a lot of people were, by the Oregon vote to decriminalize possession of small amounts of all drugs, I think, which is really quite something.
DUFFY RICE: The Oregon news, I think, is really exciting. And there's been some other good news. I think, in three fairly big counties, three big races at least, we saw more progressive D.A.s get elected. The biggest one, obviously, is in Los Angeles, the biggest county in America, where Jackie Lacey had been in office for the past eight or 12 years, I'm not sure which one. Tough-on-crime prosecutor, pretty harsh, a long history of the death penalty, and really was pretty hostile towards organizing and change. George Gascón, the former District Attorney of San Francisco, beat her in a race, which was very close.
We saw other victories in Los Angeles, which has such a strong organizing base. People like Patrisse Cullors and others have just been fighting there for decades to make changes to some very regressive California laws and local laws. I think California, particularly Los Angeles, saw some really big victories on Election Day.
Orlando—Monique Worrell who worked for the former D.A., Aramis Ayala. Aramis Ayala was the first black female District Attorney in Florida. Since she got elected in 2016 has faced just an enormous amount of pushback, primarily because she said she would never seek the death penalty.
Seeing what happened to her in Florida, seeing how the governor turned her into this political villain, how the state took power from her because she said she didn't think that people deserved to be put to death, was really quite disturbing, I think, and a moment for me of realizing how deep our carceral politics go. To see another progressive black woman win in that seat, I think, was really great.
And then, in Austin, we saw José Garza win who has already begun to change the office significantly. He, again, beat a fairly... I mean, Margaret Moore was a relatively moderate D.A. She wasn't the worst we've ever seen, but she wasn't willing to do what the moment called for. She was beat by José Garza who has already put together a coalition of defense attorneys. He actually hired one of my colleagues to be his first assistant.
There have been other significant legislative victories. In South Dakota and Montana, they legalized marijuana. I would say overall we're winning. Progressives are winning when it comes to criminal justice. They don't win all the time. They don't win on everything and we have a very long way to go, but the fact is that voters are looking for something different. They really are.
When you look at local elections, it's one of the places where the ability for progressive movement to actually take hold when it comes to criminal justice is really clear.
WATKINS: It's interesting because you're someone who's been skeptical of what people call the progressive prosecutor movement, and this whole notion that you can reform the criminal justice system via the prosecutor, whose main job is usually locking people up.
I wonder, it’s a few years in now this movement—Kim Foxx, another pioneering African-American woman, State’s Attorney in Cook County for Chicago, she's been re-elected. But what's your sense of how this movement is progressing—if you agree it is a movement—and what its promise can be?
DUFFY RICE: When I started covering criminal justice—this was about five or six years ago—the idea of a progressive prosecutor wasn't really a thing. A couple months after I started covering prosecutors, the more progressive candidate in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, where Shreveport is, won the election. I don't think today we'd even consider him progressive; he's pretty middle of the road.
At the time, it was just so major. It seemed like opening a completely new avenue of change. I think, in a lot of ways, that's proven true. You think about Kim Foxx in Chicago, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia. You think about Rachael Rollins in Boston or, again, Aramis Ayala in Orlando, and George Gascón in Los Angeles now. The impact that they have had… They certainly have not been perfect—every single one of them has, in some ways, been disappointing at some point.
But when you think the idea of harm reduction and the fact that, in some ways, their role is to reduce harm, they have absolutely reduced harm than the people that were in the office before. They've absolutely been more accountable to Black and incarcerated communities than their predecessors. If you're looking at net benefit, I think there is a net benefit to having what we call progressive prosecutors in office.
But I think it still presents some problems. The first is that it's very difficult to hold progressive prosecutors, or any prosecutor, accountable in the same way. That's because this is a very opaque system. It's a very confusing system. There's not a lot of data. These people are seeing often hundreds of thousands of cases a year.
What that means is that for organizers and for people on the ground and for policymakers and for people who are invested in change in the system, it's not just good enough to elect a progressive prosecutor. You actually have to make sure they do what they're going to say and that's hard. If you think the campaign part is hard, the accountability part is just as hard, if not in some ways, harder. And so, that always give me pause when we think that Election Day is the end of the road. It's not.
The second thing, I think, is that look, prosecutors, no matter if you're the most progressive prosecutor on the planet, your job is to put people in prison. That's your job. To me, that's a bad job! It's not a job I could do. It's not a job I can trust. You're putting someone better into a system that still demands a level of cruelty, of barbarism, that is unavoidable. The idea that prosecutors are going to be the thing that creates the most change, that saves us, is, I think, completely false.
But like any sort of reform, we're talking about a couple of different things. One, again, is hard reduction: How can we make the lives of people in this system better tomorrow than they are today? I think by having a quote unquote progressive prosecutor odds are a little bit more on people's side of that being possible. But if you're talking about really changing this system, it's not going to be the progressive prosecutor that does it.
WATKINS: If we turn to look at what happened in this country after the murder of George Floyd in May by a white Minneapolis police officer. I've been struggling a bit to think about, what's the noun to describe what took place and is taking place in this country.
On one level, it's an overdue reckoning with this country's racist history and present. But, of course, it's really just a reckoning for white people. That the country is racist is not news for people in this country who aren't white-
DUFFY RICE: Right.
WATKINS: How do you see what took place and is taking place, how do you see that feeding into the prospect of longer-term change in the criminal justice system?
DUFFY RICE: I think that's a great question. I mean, look, my perspective is probably a little warped for two reasons. One, like you said, I'm Black in America. I have a Black family. I have a Black husband. I have two Black kids. And so, in some ways, what happened with the George Floyd thing didn't feel new to me or new information.
Also, because I work in this field, I kept having to call my friends and be like, "Does this seem like a big deal to you?" Because it seemed like it was really activating a lot of people, but I also recognize that my window of who is invested in this is already skewed towards people who are invested in this. I think I'm always kind of amazed at how some of these things catch on.
Look, people are talking about stuff like defund the police. A lot of people are saying it's a bad slogan. A lot of people are anti-defund the police or using it in ways that villainize it. The fact that it's even a conversation just tells you what's possible. It really tells you that there's something brewing, that people care, and that people's perspective on this is being, at least, challenged and changed.
That being said, again, how this all plays out on the ground, it's always extremely difficult to tell. A lot of places we're seeing police budgets increase. We're seeing this being used for negative ends. We're seeing people run on this idea that progressives want lawless, dangerous cities.
But I think what you're seeing in the George Floyd moment was really important. You saw people take to the streets. You saw not just Black people take to the streets. You saw how police, in particular, used violence as a method of control. What really shocked me in those moments were how willing they were to do that against white people.
You were seeing white people get tear-gassed, white people almost run over by police. It was kind of a moment where I think a lot of people were like, "Yes, this is what we've been talking about." Not that we want anybody to be harmed, of course. It was an example of “this is what Black people have been saying for literally generations."
It feels like an important moment. But, as always, I'm nervous about what it actually means in terms of change, because it's easy to say you support these ideas. I would say it's even pretty easy to go out and march a couple times. But, again, this is a long fight and we need all hands on deck and sometimes people get distracted after the summer is over.
WATKINS: You mentioned “defund the police” where there's a lot of controversy about it and, to be uncharitable, hand-wringing about it. It seems to me that there's a misunderstanding there that people are seeing it primarily as a slogan when it's not really a slogan. It's a very sharply-pointed and -formulated policy demand. I think that's part of the reason it's having the success that it's having.
DUFFY RICE: When I think about defund the police, I'm seeing all sorts of takes on it. “Very few police actually kill people.” “What are you going to do about public safety?” “This is another example of austerity.” “What we actually need is more money and police to make them better,” et cetera. You hear all the takes.
What I don't think that people understand is that when we're talking about… And this is something Ruth Wilson Gilmore has said and Mariame Kaba and people who have really shaped my view on the idea of abolition. We're talking about creation, not destruction. We're saying, "What would you need to create a universe where police are not necessary? And let's create that universe.”
That's a better universe for police. That's a major part that keeps getting lost in this conversation. Police are not equipped, nor should they be tasked, with taking care of people in a mental health crisis, with handling addiction, which is a physical and mental disease. This is not their job.
To be able to clear the field of some of the responsibilities that they don't need to have and shift those responsibilities and that focus to other departments, to other people, to other social services, I think is good for everybody.
WATKINS: There is a world in which defund the police does have to function as a slogan. In that sense, there isn't really a positive… This is the critique I've heard from some sympathetic people about it, which is that it doesn't outline any kind of positive or affirmative vision. It's strictly “defund the police.”
Do you see that as some of the problem, to the extent there is one, that there isn't a positive vision being declared?
DUFFY RICE: I don't. The reason is because defunding the police is the most crucial part of what organizers set out to describe. It highlights that there is a force, especially in Black and brown and poor communities, which is harming people, and that this is not the job of the government, to harm people, to make people feel less safe. It highlights the depths of the restrictive role that police play in our communities.
I think it's important to make it clear that, yes, we want better schools, we want more jobs, we want parks that our kids can go to after school. We want people to make a livable wage. We want the world to look for people—especially for, again, poor, Black, and brown people—like a world that accepts them that wants them to succeed and that wants them to be safe.
A super crucial part of that is defunding the police. Now, of course, it makes people uncomfortable. I get that. It's not supposed to make people comfortable.
I think my response to that tends to be: this is what people are trying to tell you. What makes them uncomfortable is the constant presence of law enforcement in their world. What makes them uncomfortable is the depths of brutality, of over-policing, of punishment that their communities have been subject to for decades.
What we tend to care about is what makes white people uncomfortable, rich people uncomfortable, suburban people uncomfortable, powerful people uncomfortable. We don't tend to sit with what makes the people who are actually paying the price uncomfortable.
I live in a neighborhood that is almost all Black, poor neighborhood. The schools are not good. The violence level is pretty high. I love my neighborhood. I love my neighbors. It can be an unnerving place to be sometimes late at night when you know that a couple houses down or a couple blocks away there's consistent violence. In my neighborhood, for example, I don't hear a lot about defund the police when I look at Nextdoor or community boards or whatever.
What I actually hear is “I wish the police were here more.” But, what I think that that misses is that, if my community had what it needed, we would not need the police here more. If my community had the social services that my parents' zip code has, if my community had the investment that other neighborhoods have, we would not have the same concerns that we have right now.
It's an extreme slogan, and there are a lot of people who think it doesn't work and a lot of people I respect think it doesn't work. When we first started talking about this my dad called me and he's like, "I don't really like the ‘defund the police’ slogan because it sounds like you guys want to defund the police."
I was like, "Dad, that's exactly what we mean, thank you.” But, that is something that people have to sit with. In my head, if we get to a place where we have defunded the police 50 percent, that's a pretty significant victory. It's not the whole gamut, but it's something.
If we get to a place where people in budget meetings are starting to rethink how we have been increasing law enforcement budgets at the expense of other social services for decades, that's a win. I don't expect everybody to like it. If you were polling the Civil Rights Movement this time 40, 50 years ago, you wouldn't like what you saw either. But, I tend to believe that making people think about big ideas is important.
WATKINS: It's your position, in this great Vanity Fair article that you wrote that I'll link to on the episode page, that the police as an institution are just so polluted historically that it's not an institution that can be reformed, it can only be abolished. Now you would extend that judgment to the criminal justice or the criminal legal system as a whole?
DUFFY RICE: I think I would, yeah. There are parts of the system that I think are really important. In theory, at least, our Constitution really does afford defendants rights in a way that… When you're learning about the Constitution, like high school civics or whatever, I just don't think you always recognize how crucial that is: the right to be tried by a jury of your peers; the right for a trial to be overseen by a judge. The fact that there are constitutional limitations to what defendants can be charged with or face or how they can be punished are important. If I were designing again there are parts that I would retain. But there is plenty that I would get rid of.
I think part of the problem of our criminal justice system is that we just rely on it too much. If this system was constantly dealing with real harm—murders, and domestic violence, for example, if it was constantly dealing with rape—then I think I would feel differently about its efficacy and the value of the system as created. But it's actually not normally dealing with real harm and it really is just processing people in a way that not only fails to address harm but actually increases it.
The system as designed and the system in practice are very different. I don't think the system as designed is perfect by any means. But I think in some ways it has good bones. It's the way that it plays out on the ground that causes so much harm.
When we think about reform we're often, again, just tinkering at the margins. We're saying, "Well, people with drug problems shouldn't have to go to regular court, they can go to drug court." Well, maybe that's helpful in some situations and maybe it's better than nothing, except that we're still putting people with addiction problems in a punishment system. Its priorities are out of whack, the entire system's priorities are out of whack. And I don't know how you fix that without starting from close to scratch.
WATKINS: But there are reforms that are a form of harm reduction, as you're saying, and some are going to be doing that more than others. What do you see as the relationship between reform of the criminal justice system and abolition of it? Do you see reform and abolition as being opponents or are there ways in which they can be complementary?
DUFFY RICE: I don't see them as being opponents and I do think there are ways in which they can be complementary. I'm assuming we're not going to abolish everything tomorrow and I don't think we could. Our society is really shaped around the criminal justice system. We allow it to shape our priorities. We allow it to do what other systems aren't doing.
I don't think tomorrow you can take every police officer and every prison and shut them down because we don't have the structures necessary to absorb what we've created. I think that question—whether reform and abolition are constantly at odds with each other or whether they can be complementary—is a really good one and it depends on the reform. I think we're always imagining the counterfactual. When you look at what a reform does I think it's worth looking at what it doesn't do and what it's prohibiting.
I think I'll use drug court as an example again. I'm thinking of the drug courts here in Georgia and other places, not the more innovative courts that the Center for Court Innovation has because, as a former intern at CCI, I think the work that is done there is really, really crucial.
If a county implements a drug court and it actually is not having a much better impact on people with addiction’s lives, but now they get to say they implemented this drug court, now, they get to say that they've done criminal justice reform and they get to sit on their laurels in that way without actually grappling with harm, then I don't know that that's a good reform.
But then, again, there are other reforms. There are places that are trying to cut jail populations by a significant percentage. Is that abolition? No, it's not abolition. That's good. We're recognizing the necessity of reducing a population and in some places they're doing it. Engaging with the big ideas and with the policy stuff, it takes a lot of nuance and balancing in trying to figure out what's best for this moment.
WATKINS: I want to ask you about your work at The Appeal, but I thought before we get there, I'd really be interested to hear your take on how you think the media is doing of late in covering criminal justice issues, and specifically, maybe, taking the point in time of the murder of George Floyd and everything that followed from it.
DUFFY RICE: When I started working at the public defender's office as an assistant, this was 11 years ago, the idea that the media would engage with the idea of reform without simultaneously constantly fear-mongering was kind of a pipe dream. The fact that you see that at all, I think, is a good sign. That being said, there's a long way to go. The media faces a lot of internal and external constraints that make it difficult sometimes to tell these stories.
If you're a local reporter in a county in Missouri or something and you cover… You're not a criminal justice reporter, you're a crime reporter. That's a different job. It requires different allegiances in a lot of ways. It's very difficult to criticize the local prosecutor if tomorrow you're going to need them for comment.
We still see a lot of problems. We still see language like “felon” and “criminal” being used constantly. We still see the media highlighting an outlier situation and fear-mongering with that outlier situation.
I think when you look at, for example, the coverage of the bail reform laws in New York and how immediately after bail reform was implemented all of a sudden you saw headlines like “man let out on bail robs store,” “man let out on bail hijacks car,” or whatever it was, without engaging with what that means.
What it means to keep someone who hasn't been convicted of a crime in prison; how many people were let out on bail and didn't do any of that stuff; is crime actually increasing; what does an increasing crime look like; what are the other social factors going on at this moment? For example, how low is unemployment? Are we at a pandemic, or whatever?
You really just saw a lot of willy-nilly connection between policy reform and crime on the ground, which I think was irresponsible and largely falls on the media's shoulders. That's a very long way of saying that it's gotten better in a lot of ways, but we still have a very, very long way to go when it comes to having a discerning and accurate media infrastructure around this issue.
WATKINS: As I mentioned, you're the president of The Appeal, which is this great online publication devoted to criminal justice issues. I'm wondering what you see as the role of The Appeal in the conversation that you're just talking about. I'd be curious to get your thoughts on what sort of space The Appeal is occupying that, say, The Marshall Project isn't, for example?
DUFFY RICE: Journalism in a lot of places is falling apart. It doesn't have the funding it needs. It's been bought up by big corporations and chopped into a million pieces and left for dead. It's being run by big conglomerates like Sinclair. Reporters don't have the resources necessary—by reporters, I mean local reporters—resources necessary to do investigative journalism, to tell big stories, to keep their jobs.
In a lot of ways, what we were trying to do was help support local journalism: partner with them sometimes on stories, make sure that we were getting across the importance of local journalism and of local storytelling when it comes to national issues. Those really remain our goals. We're dedicated to covering issues that affect vulnerable people. That is not just criminal justice, but housing, the economy, the environment, education.
We're very, very dedicated to holding elected officials accountable. The way I always put it is we name the direct object. It's common, especially in stories about criminal justice: “Man wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for 40 years,” or whatever; “man dies in jail cell after being beaten.” What's missing from that is who wrongfully convicted that man, who imprisoned him, who beat him?
So often we're not actually willing to ascribe a person, an office, or a system of wrongdoing when we tell these stories. I think that's changing, and I hope in part that's changing because of The Appeal. If you don't have journalism that will hold people accountable—elected officials, public officials—accountable for wrongdoing, then what's the purpose of journalism?
The differences between us and The Marshall Project, I think, The Marshall Project started with slightly different goals. They still pretty exclusively cover the criminal justice system and a lot of the work that they do is just absolutely incredible. They have great reporters. They're really important.
I don't actually know that this is a difference, but I'll say that one of our operating perspectives at The Appeal is that there is no real question of whether mass incarceration exists. We acknowledge that at baseline.
This isn't really directed at The Marshall Project, but it's more of sort of a broader thing that I think sets us apart is that we're starting a little bit down the line. We don't do a lot of work on, “is this injustice?” We start with the injustice part and then we tell stories.
People call it different stuff, like advocacy journalism and left journalism or whatever. I don't tend to like those terms because I think that they're empty and meaningless in a lot of ways. You wouldn't read The Appeal and not know where we come down on things. I don't think that's true of The Marshall Project either, although we might be a little bit more extreme, in that sense.
All of us are trying to tell stories, to tell substantiated stories. The journalism that I think all the publications in this field do is extremely strong. And we're trying to run nonprofit newsrooms. I think, in a lot of ways, there's more similar between us than different.
WATKINS: No, definitely. It seems to me, though, that you guys started with the notion that the criminal justice system did not have to exist. I mean, the idea of abolition has always been on the table for The Appeal, and given what we've been talking about with the ascent of the defund the police demand of late, in some ways, that makes you guys seem ahead of the curve.
DUFFY RICE: Yeah. I mean, I think that this is true. At The Appeal, we're certainly ready to present the really big ideas, the really big reforms to really talk about how this could look different and, at least, make accessible a vision of a future. That's not every outlet's priority. That goes for any outlet like The New York Times, The Washington Post, whatever. People have different perspectives on what journalism provides and I think we need all of it.
WATKINS: And then, of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about your great criminal justice podcast, Justice in America. I think you guys are heading now into your fourth season. I'm wondering what you see yourself doing through audio in this space that, maybe, you can't do through print?
DUFFY RICE: Justice in America has just been such an exciting and rewarding project and I think it is precisely because of that. For people who like podcasts and for people who are audio-oriented, it provides a different way to get this information across.
What it does is that it's not the same as the written work on The Appeal. We're not doing a podcast per story. We're not doing a podcast per location. We do it basically by topic.
We've talked about prosecutors and immigration. We've talked about public defense, the criminalization of poverty, judicial elections. We've talked about clemency. We've talked about restorative justice. It's different, I think, than telling individual stories. We're fitting the stories into the general topic instead of the other way around.
But the hope, I think, is that it's accessible in the way that I want The Appeal to also be accessible. Again, the criminal justice system is really opaque and the details of it are really only accessible to people who focus their whole lives on it or are lawyers or whatever it is. It's a system that affects all of us. We should all be able to navigate it with some level of knowledge and that's what we're trying to help provide.
WATKINS: And then, just to conclude, you present—your public persona in this space, to me, anyway—you seem like a happy warrior when it comes to fighting for the issues that you believe in. I thought we should try to end on a hopeful note—there's been some notes of that already in this interview.
I mean, other than the two kids that we mentioned off the top, what gets you out of bed in the morning? What makes you optimistic right now about the future and the possibility of real political change?
DUFFY RICE: We're in a generational struggle. We're not in a struggle for this year. We're not in a struggle for this decade. We're not even in a struggle for this century. We're in a generational struggle in which we are only a part of that and we're part of something much bigger.
That can either drive people or it can be overwhelming. For me, I think it really helps drive me because it gives a sense of purpose and a sense of purpose to future generations. It means that I'm working towards something that I might not ever see really the fruits of. But that's okay, if I'm fighting a big fight.
So, yes, my kids help get me out of bed—mainly because they wake up at 6 AM and I have to get out of bed. I am lucky to have great friends and family, and all of that really helps not get too depressed about this field. But, overall, I think understanding that this actually isn't about any of us. It's about something much bigger. It's about a much bigger fight and it's our duty to fight it. I find that encouraging.
WATKINS: Well, I have to say I've gotten that sense of the much bigger fight that's at the core of this, I think that always come through in your writing and I-
DUFFY RICE: Oh, thank you.
WATKINS: …I've really benefited from it and learned a lot from your work. I just want to thank you very much for that work, both of the audio and the written variety. And, of course, thank you for finally being a guest on New Thinking. I'm just so glad we could make this happen, so thank you, Josie.
DUFFY RICE: I am too! I’m so thrilled to be on, so thank you so much for having me.