I'm struck over and over again by who gets to make mistakes in American society. My kids get to make mistakes. But we still don't cut a break for poor people, especially poor people of color.
When Emily Bazelon began work several years ago on what became her newest book, she set out to write a straightforward account of how prosecutors had amassed so much power within the criminal justice system, and how they had been using that power to build what she calls America's "giant machine of punishment." But as she researched that book, something remarkable was happening: awakening to the power of the elected district attorney position, local activists and social movements began organizing to elect a new kind of prosecutor. And not just organizing, but winning.
In a handful of mostly major urban centers across the country—Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, Dallas, Boston—outsider candidates pledging to be "smart" on crime began taking control of local prosecutor offices. It's the work behind those victories referenced in the subtitle to Bazelon's new book, Charged: The New Movement to Transform Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration.
In conversation with New Thinking host Matt Watkins, Bazelon explains why she calls the progressive prosecutor movement, "the most promising means of reform I see on the political landscape." But she also acknowledges the movement's limits, and its fledgling status. To ensure its gains outlast the tenure of the currently elected D.A.s, those prosecutors themselves have to work to shrink the footprint of the criminal justice system, and with it, the power of their own offices. If they can do that, and show that it works, suggests Bazelon, the current outposts of progressive prosecution could serve as models for spreading the message across the country.
Header photo: Emily Bazelon / Credit: Nina Subin
Resources and References
- The companion narrative podcast to 'Charged,' hosted by Bazelon, from Slate and The Appeal
- 'If Prisons Don’t Work, What Will?' New York Times op-ed from Bazelon (04.19)
- Former federal prosecutor Paul Butler reviews 'Charged' in The Washington Post (04.19)
- New Thinking with the ACLU's Somil Trivedi: 'What's Next for Progressive Prosecutors?' (02.19)
- 'Kamala Harris Was Not a "Progressive Prosecutor",' New York Times op-ed from Lara Bazelon [Emily's sister] (01.19)
- 'There’s a Wave of New Prosecutors. And They Mean Justice,' New York Times op-ed from Bazelon and Miriam Krinsky (12.18)
- '21 Principles for the 21st Century Prosecutor,' produced by Fair and Just Prosecution in partnership with Bazelon, The Justice Collaborative, and The Brennan Center for Justice (12.18)
- ACLU poll finds half of respondents don't know they can elect their D.A. but overwhelming support for prosecutorial reform (12.17)
- 'Prison Diversion Programs in New York Face New Scrutiny After Police Officer’s Killing,' The New York Times (12.15)
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
Matt WATKINS: Emily, congratulations on the book and the new podcast. And thanks so much for joining us today.
Emily BAZELON: I'm so excited to talk with you. This is a great podcast and I'm happy to be part of it.
WATKINS: Well, thanks very much. All right, so it's my understanding that this book project began for you a few years ago and your idea was to focus and cast light onto the power, the outsized power, that prosecutors have. But as you worked on the book, the project transformed somewhat, and I'm wondering at what point you realized that you actually had a different story to tell?
BAZELON: Yes, when I look back at my book proposal, which I wrote in 2015, I was really focused on the power of prosecutors: how they'd amassed so much more power than the system is designed for, and how they were almost exclusively in those years—and really, I mean from the eighties until 2015 or 2016—how they were really using their power to drive mass incarceration.
My idea was to explain how prosecutors are the missing piece of the mass incarceration puzzle. And that is a really important part of my book, and I do tell that story. But in 2016, and I really figured this out because of the election that November, a number of cities started to have these social movements bubbling up in which people had figured out that if they elected a new kind of district attorney, they could try to have a significant impact, even a transformative impact, on the local criminal justice system.
And so that story took me by surprise, but I was really excited to learn about it and write about it because it's important, and also because, as a journalist, I'm really interested when things change. So my book ends up telling two stories. One is the traditional story about prosecutorial power, and one is this much more recent shift that we're really just at the beginning of in trying to hold prosecutors accountable to a constituency, often communities of color and low-income people, who are asking them to reduce mass incarceration and increase the fairness of the system.
WATKINS: I like this formulation you have of people “figuring out” the kind of power that prosecutors have because it does seem it was a very galvanizing conclusion for people to reach. I think it's near the end of the book—you call the progressive prosecutor movement, "the most promising means of reform I see on the political landscape." Can you talk a little bit about what led you to that conclusion?
BAZELON: When you elect your local D.A., that’s something that you do as a local community. It's your city, your county, that picks your local D.A—the same way you pick your mayor or your county commissioners. And so because it is local, it's easy to have a big effect on. It's thousands of voters who make these crucial decisions, not millions of voters. It's not about fixing Washington, which seems so unattainable. And it's not even about trying to sway your state legislature, which can also be very difficult.
And so I see this movement as harnessing the power of prosecutors, which historically has been a bad thing, and trying to make it a good thing in terms of reducing mass incarceration and healing and shrinking this giant system we've created. And if it succeeds, then the next step is, okay, well, these cities and counties could be a model where communities are safe and they're also healthier places. And maybe that will make it both safe and also politically viable for state legislatures, or even for Congress, to take more steps to dismantle this giant machine of punishment that America has built.
WATKINS: I mean, right now it's fair to say that progressive prosecutors are very much in the minority and there is a degree to which it's an urban-rural phenomenon. But it sounds to me like you see this movement as potentially a kind of model for what could work going forward?
BAZELON: Yes, everything you just said is true. There are more than 2,400 elected prosecutors across the country. Depending on how you count, there are five to 40 of them who can fairly claim to be progressive. However, they represent some big places—we're talking about cities with millions of people: Philadelphia and Brooklyn and Boston and Chicago.
There's this interesting math—it's not my finding, it's from Carissa Hessick at the University of North Carolina. She figured out that if you had 125 progressive prosecutors in the biggest cities and metro areas in the country, they would actually be the D.A. for half the population of America. So the 2,400 number is really big and hard to crack, but it involves a lot of small rural districts. If we think of the progressive prosecutor movement as beginning with these big metro areas and then becoming a model, it doesn't take that many elections to really change the picture of American criminal justice, even if it's not a complete national solution.
WATKINS: And then when you talk about “harnessing” the position of the prosecutor and using this power for good, is that what you see as the goal of the movement—if we can call it a movement—that it is to use this power, previously used in abusive ways often, in more positive ways, or do you also think the goal should be for prosecutors, progressive ones anyway, to actually work to reduce their own power as prosecutors?
BAZELON: It's both, but it's easier to ask people to harness their power to do good by holding them accountable to a different constituency. You can start there, and then you can imagine this next step of prosecutors giving up some of their power. For example, a big thing is changing how they charge people. If you don't try to jack up people on the maximum possible charges in order to induce a plea bargain, that gives up some power right there. But there is a second question, which is whether we should change the laws that allow prosecutors to jack up the charges in the first place.
And I'm talking now in particular about mandatory sentencing laws, which really give huge power to prosecutors because they bake in punishment to the decisions prosecutors make at charging. So, I think a later step is to change those laws.
And another feature of this progressive prosecutors movement is to try to create an alternative lobbying force among district attorneys and state attorneys. Right now in the country, every state has a state D.A.'s association; there's also a national one. They uniformly take hardline tough-on-crime stances on legislation, on policies; that's their reason to exist in the world. If you start having progressive prosecutors who are saying, "Hey, wait a minute, we have the same job as you, we have the same credibility, and we think that's a mistake," that's another way to shake up this political dynamic.
WATKINS: How much appetite do you think there is out there among progressive prosecutors—again, to the extent to which we can speak of them as a group—how much appetite do you think that there is for actually reducing their power in this next step way that you're talking about? I mean, when Larry Krasner talks about being the pirate who's taking over the ship, that doesn't exactly sound like he's interested in putting guard rails around his power necessarily.
BAZELON: Well, but Larry Krasner is interested in reducing charges and has said to his assistant prosecutors in nonviolent cases, for the most part at least, "You should start with charges at the bottom of the Pennsylvania sentencing guidelines, instead of at the top." So that is an example of Krasner using his office to harness his power. And he also quit the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association because he didn't like the positions they were taking.
He took with him a third of the budget for that state association. That's a pretty strong move toward changing the way the prosecutors lobby.
WATKINS: But I guess the concern is though that if we don't go to the step two of really putting it in writing, and maybe that's a state legislature job to do, that somebody who comes after, say, a Larry Krasner or a Kim Fox could just unilaterally rollback the policies, right?
BAZELON: Oh, yeah. You're completely right. I mean, when you rely on the identity of the individual elected official, you leave in place the same systemic vulnerabilities and weaknesses that were there before and the next person can change their mind. Again, I think for me, the question is: will these folks get reelected? Historically, it's been very easy for D.A. incumbents to keep winning elections. So is that going to be the case also for these progressive D.A.s?
And then the second question is: okay, well it's certainly true this is no perfect permanent fix, but is it the best chance for moving the needle? Can it create the kind of models that could lead to the more systemic changes you're talking about? This isn't my call to make. I'm a reporter—not an activist, not a policy maker. What I do is I pay attention to the people on the ground who are working really hard on this issue.
And when I see them putting a lot of energy into these elections, I figure that's something I should respect and that's work that I should pay attention to.
WATKINS: Yeah, certainly, certainly. I mean, just picking up on the voters question though: the book ends with a call for voters to use their power to fix the criminal justice system, and obviously it's been great to see that happening in many large cities across the country. But does it concern you at all—it's the kind of Rachel Barkow question, the author of Prisoners of Politics—that we're putting maybe too much faith in voters to change the system and that how voters respond to things can really be subject to, say, whether crime rates go up and down, for example.
BAZELON: I'm a big fan of Rachel's and of her book and yes, the concern that political change is very subject to crime rates going up and down, like that is a concern. I don't really see a better alternative though. I mean, calling for things like sentencing commissions and other technocratic fixes could work, but it's just not worked in modern American history. You really have to look toward Europe and a couple of examples from the states to see good examples for what Rachel's book is calling for.
Most of the time when we create things like sentencing commissions and parole boards and other technocratic middlemen in the American criminal justice system, they moved toward harsher punishment. That is absolutely the story, for example, of the federal sentencing guidelines. They were supposed to make things more consistent and make punishment more even-handed and more fair, and instead, everyone just got sentenced to more time in prison. So I'm skeptical of that kind of fix.
WATKINS: I really take your point about the progressive prosecutors and their districts serving as models of the road forward. And obviously, to do that, we're going to have to be able to show that those models are working. Do you have a sense right now of what is being accomplished by progressive prosecutors?
BAZELON: I think you're starting to see jail populations go down in cities like St. Louis and Philadelphia and places like Brooklyn. I think you're starting to see more of a turn toward drug treatment and diversion programs more generally—efforts to give people social services and divert them from prison. These local jurisdictions are going to have to try a lot of things. This is where this laboratory of democracy comes in. If this succeeds, it spreads because you try something in one place and people show that it's effective.
And what I mean by that is safety. You're keeping communities safe, you're respecting victims, treating them like they matter. And you're also trying to heal some of the harm of putting so many people behind bars. If some of these cities and counties can do that, then I think there is this chance for this kind of policy-making to spread.
One analogy I've been thinking about a lot lately, and I wonder what you think about this, is the movement for marriage equality. When it started it seemed out of sync with American public opinion of how we'd been doing this forever. We'd only had men marrying women and vice versa, and that was just the way it had to be. But then people started talking about it differently, framing it in terms of equality and fairness and it turned out that public opinion shifted really rapidly and then the politicians and the courts had to hurry to catch up.
I think you can see something similar happening when you look at public opinion polls right now. Sixty percent of people who respond say that they're more likely to support a candidate who is interested in reducing the number of people behind bars. And that's a big shift. It makes me think that it's possible for politicians to take more chances and take more risks than they used to do before. It is also true that this is a window of opportunity while crime is low, but I think there is room…
WATKINS: But winter is coming maybe.
BAZELON: (laughter) Yeah, well, I think that creates a sense of urgency that you need to try some of these things and change the narrative about safety while you have a good chance.
WATKINS: I guess as part of that ground-shifting that we're talking about in the way people talk about criminal justice, a big part of that is that the position of the prosecutor has moved from being invisible and not really talked about to now being almost ubiquitous. And this label of getting to call yourself a progressive prosecutor is now really sought after. We've seen it crop up in the Democratic primaries right now.
I'm asking you now to also put on your hat of respected political commentator and talk a little bit about: do you think there is leverage in the progressive prosecutor movement right now given the fact that so many people now seem to be fighting to get that label?
BAZELON: I think there's interesting tension because you want the label to really mean something and not to be diluted by everybody claiming it without really doing anything to live up to it. So I think those are healthy tensions within any kind of social movement and moment of political change. I also think it's important not to overestimate how much attention this is getting.
I mean, I was just really struck... This is from 2017, but when I was working on my book, the ACLU did a survey in which they had a polling firm ask people, "Do you elect your local D.A.?" And only half of the people who responded knew they had the power to elect their local prosecutor. That's actually the case in almost every state. And so I think just spreading the word, "Hey voters, this is a person you pick just like you pick the mayor." That's actually still a really important message to get out there. And honestly, if all my book does is help that number rise, that would make me happy.
WATKINS: Are there for you some key metrics for judging whether a prosecutor is really progressive?
BAZELON: This is a really crucial question that I think the social movement is still figuring out, and so to a certain degree, I defer to the folks on the ground. Overarching, though, I think the crucial question is whether people show that they are shrinking the size of the whole system. We have five times as many people in jail and prison as we did in the 70s. We have more than any other country. It's not necessary for deterrence.
Are you really making that number fall in addition to all the people who are being supervised on parole and probation, which is over 4 million people in the country and those people get cycled back into jail for what are called technical violations of parole and probation, which are things like staying out too late, or leaving the state without permission—not crimes. So I think you have to show that you are changing those numbers. I think another really important metric is racial disparity because we have this system that at every juncture black and brown people get punished more harshly for the same kinds of behavior as white people. And you have to be, I think, showing that you're tackling that head-on.
WATKINS: And so often we see that even as the base rates shrink and the number of people in the system is going down, that those racial disparities really remain locked in place. And sometimes even harden.
BAZELON: This is something I saw in my reporting in Brooklyn. So, to give an example, in 2014, the D.A. at the time, who was the first African-American D.A. in Brooklyn, he said, "Okay, we're going to stop prosecuting most marijuana, low-level possession cases." So the police were mad, they didn't like this idea. And what ended up happening was that people were no longer getting charged for having a little bit of weed on them, but the number of arrests went up for smoking in public and the D.A.'s office was still charging people who had a criminal record for marijuana even though that doesn't necessarily follow one from the next.
So, you had real racial disparity in the remaining marijuana charging in Brooklyn and WNYC did a really good investigation showing this. And then Eric Gonzalez who is the current D.A. said, "You know what, I really need to deal with this." And I asked him about this a few weeks ago and he said that those numbers were coming down. That seems like an important way in which you have to make sure that you haven't accidentally increased the racist problems in the system.
WATKINS: If the goal of progressive prosecutors—I mean, the overarching one I think you're saying should be to shrink the system… You did some reporting on the different ways progressive prosecutors are approaching this challenge. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about these two—I don't know if we want to call them opposing—but two different models for change you identified. One in the Brooklyn D.A.'s office, the Brooklyn D.A. you just mentioned Eric Gonzalez, where I think you did some really deep reporting and continue to do for your podcast; and then the other being Larry Krasner, the hard-charging district attorney of Philadelphia.
So, could you talk a little bit about their two approaches and what sense you have of what success they're each having at implementing their policies and changing the culture of their offices?
BAZELON: I think that if you ask Krasner and Gonzalez they share a lot of the same goals, but they're very different stylistically. Gonzalez is a career prosecutor. He is like an accidental D.A. and an accidental politician. He was raised up through the ranks by Ken Thompson, who we were just talking about, when Thompson got elected and then Thompson unexpectedly died of cancer in the middle of his term. And that's how Eric became the D.A.
So, what you see with Gonzalez is this willingness to work within the system and to think that his lawyers—the prosecutors who work for him—are down with his program. So, he did a survey when he came into office and he asked these hundreds of assistant prosecutors, "Do you share my progressive vision?" And most of them said yes. And so he didn't fire a lot of people. He likes to do things with lots of internal buy-in. You don't see him having big fights with Brooklyn judges for example.
He signed on to the Close Rikers campaign early on, which really helped that campaign gain momentum, but he didn't make a big public announcement. He did it kind of quietly and behind the scenes, which is a very Eric-Gonzalez-type move. He has been willing to take on the NYPD, the police department in New York, to some degree, but again, he doesn't like to hold press conferences and denounce them. That's just like not his way.
Larry Krasner on the other hand: much more aggressive; rhetorically is the person who has been the most willing to challenge the system, has done some really interesting things. For example, he told his prosecutors that when they ask for prison time, he wants them to tell the court how much money that is going to cost as a way of making people think about how we use our resources. And he also called, as we were talking about before, for a lowering of charges across the board in a lot of cases in a way that changes the balance of power.
What you see with Krasner is more pushback from other parts of the system in Philadelphia. There are judges who are mad at him. The cops really don't like him. Probation and parole aren't really cooperating. I don't think that's because Krasner is wrong in his approach, I think it has to do with the system he inherited. Philadelphia was a much more broken criminal justice system than Brooklyn was when these two different people got elected. So, part of this is just, what's the context you're operating in?
WATKINS: Do you think it's fair to say that to be a good progressive prosecutor, given this challenge of changing office culture and having hundreds of people working for you, that to be a good one, you have to not only have good policies, but you also have to be an effective manager?
BAZELON: I do think that's true. I think that can mean different things in different places, but I do think that's true. And I think one challenge for a lot of these new D.A.s is they have not necessarily been trained in management; that's not what they were doing before. I should say, because I always want to disclose this, that my younger sister Dana works for Larry Krasner as a policy advisor. So that's part of my window into that office.
WATKINS: And then I wanted to talk a little bit about diversion, and it's something that we here at the Center do a lot of, which is routing people out of the criminal justice system, or routing them out of incarceration, and into community-based alternatives. And this idea of diversion is at the heart of one of the two narratives that you tell in Charged. And this is a young man to whom you give the Kevin in Brownsville, Brooklyn who ends up in a diversion program.
I'm just wondering if you could tell the story of Kevin a little bit, his experience with the diversion program, and then, I mean I was really struck by in a sense how onerous his diversion program turned out to be, even though it sounds like it was a mostly positive experience for him. But could you talk a bit about what you learned about what you think makes up a good diversion program and what makes a bad one, I suppose?
BAZELON: That's a great question. Your Center is doing really important work in this area, and I really feel like I want to hear what you all think about that too and have learned from your experience. But let's talk a little bit about the program that Kevin went through. So it's called Youth and Congregations in Partnership. It's run out of the Brooklyn D.A.'s office, which is super unusual. And it's also for people who are charged with serious violent felonies, which is also really unusual.
WATKINS: In this instance, as you point out, it's a violent felony in name, but in fact, there was no actual violence in the crime that Kevin is charged with.
BAZELON: Yes. Gun possession you don't actually hurt someone, it's a crime of possession, but New York treats it as a violent felony. And there are people in YCP, there were more in the past, but there's still people who also have things like burglary charges. Again, treated as a violent felony sometimes even though you don't necessarily hurt someone. We're talking about a group of young people who most prosecutors, most judges, most programs don't want to touch.
Not because they are like scary, bad people. That was not my feeling after having spent time with dozens of them. But because if they are out and about and they hurt someone, everyone is going to turn on the program and blame it. There's a famous case of this in New York of a man who had a really long rap sheet and committed armed robbery and been accused in a shooting, but then he was out on drug treatment and he killed a cop, and everyone gets really nervous about things like that. The power of the bad headline can be a real problem for diversion programs, even though that's not a very rational way to make policy based on one terrible tragedy.
In any case, YCP, this diversion program in Brooklyn, is run by, or I should say it's staffed by, social workers, and I think that's crucial. It doesn't have a probation officer mentality. It's trying to meet people where they are when they come in the door in terms of what they're thinking about, what kinds of skills they have, and then it tries to help them make their lives better. You have to have a job or be working towards your education—that's the basic goal. And then it imposes some structure in the form of a curfew.
There has been random drug testing, which we can talk about whether that's really necessary since these people aren't charged with drug offenses and there's no evidence that they are drug addicts, but that's part of it. So you have this combination of carrots and sticks. And another feature of this program is to get into it, you have to plead guilty. And so you're in it for a year and you have this prison time that hangs over you.
In my book, Kevin had two years of prison he was going to face if he screwed up in the program. In the podcast I'm working on, which has another defendant in it named Tarari, he pled guilty to 15 years, which just seems like an astronomical sentence for possession of a gun with no evidence that he had done anything to threaten or hurt anyone. But that was the situation. So I would say this is an interesting model that does help some people. I have mixed feelings about it operating out of the D.A.'s office because it's sort of weird to have social workers effectively working for prosecutors with their priorities.
And another feature of the program that I found really troubling is that, so the deal is if you complete the program successfully, you not only don't go to prison, but you actually have your record expunged—this conviction is gone and the record is sealed. But it turns out that does not mean that the cops can't see what you were accused of, and I found a lot of evidence that the police were targeting people who'd been in the program. Not necessarily because they hated the program, though actually, that may be part of it, but also just because they were just being treated as scary people with guns, even though they had successfully gone through this year of social work and diversion.
So, I found that really troubling just in terms of how we think about young people and giving them a chance to start over and really have mercy operate in a meaningful way in their lives. I'm a white mom and I have teenage sons and I watched so many young black kids in Brooklyn just get treated as suspicious by the cops and heard their stories in this way that I just felt like would never be true for my sons. Every time it gets to me.
WATKINS: It got to me too, frankly. I kind of teared up at the part of the book where you report that Kevin, after completing the diversion program and getting through all the hoops, he posted on social media a kind of headline, "I Am No Longer State Property," and you just think about how much he had to do to get to that point. And as you say, one of the things he had to do was manage to go a year or two as a young black man in Brownsville and not get arrested by the police.
BAZELON: Yes, that's right. And yet at the end of the book, well, I don't want to give it all away, but the police are still after him, and it's been true for Tarari on my podcast too. There is a disconnect there. If we really mean that we are going to invest in young people and let them start over, we need to let them truly start over just like everybody else.
WATKINS: Where do you think the line might be? The difference between a reasonable diversion program and then when it bleeds over into excessive control.
BAZELON: Well, I think it's a really important not to start with a harsher punishment than you need. I'm talking about prison and jail. I'm also talking about things like ankle monitors, which for the young people I was following were really dehumanizing and upsetting for the most part. So it's one thing if someone is breaking the rules to say, "We're going to put this monitor on you for a few days or a week because we want to track you, but then we're going to let you earn your way off."
It's another thing to start off with that level of suspicion and dehumanization. I think that's a real mistake and an example of exactly the kind of net-widening you're talking about.
There are a lot of people in the criminal justice system who just shouldn't be there, but then there are also people who need help and look, ideally in America, the way that you would get that help would not be after you get arrested. It would come much earlier. It would not be tied in any way to the court system. But since we do have this huge net in which we're catching people, at least we can use it to try to make some people's lives better. Although again, we should always be cognizant of making sure that we're not just trapping more people.
WATKINS: Near the end of the book, you cite the Stanford Law professor David Sklansky. He concludes that prosecutors have been allowed to operate as something of a black box because we don't really know what we want from the justice system. At the end of this process and this ongoing podcast production you're involved in, do you feel any closer to knowing either what we want—the collective “we”—from the justice system, or what you would want from the justice system?
BAZELON: Well, I always am afraid to speak beyond myself, but I do think when you look at these poll numbers, and you talk to victims also, which is so important, people want some sense that the law is operating in a legitimate, fair way. There is this legal system, they get why it does the things they do, they want to help the cops solve crimes because they trust the system to make their lives better. I think that is really missing in a lot of places in America right now. There's just this sense of the opposite, that this system is operating arbitrarily and unfairly.
I think shifting that is the crucial move. And I guess the other thing I'll say, and this is a little more conceptual maybe, is I'm struck over and over again about who gets to make mistakes in American society. My kids get to make mistakes. Nobody's caught them with a gun, but if they were speeding really fast on the highway, they would not wind up in jail. I just really doubt it. And I feel people like Kevin have just much less room to make mistakes, even though we know that teenagers don't have the same kind of impulse control on average as adults do.
We have all this research about the adolescent brain, we know that those kinds of propensities persist into being in your mid-20s, but we still just don't cut a break for poor people, especially poor people of color. And that just hits me over the head over and over again in my reporting.
WATKINS: I exist myself in a bit of a criminal justice reform bubble so it can be hard sometimes to gauge what's really going on in the broader conversation, but it does seem like, speaking of what do people want from the justice system, that there's just a really renewed attention on restorative justice as a different kind of approach. Do you have that sense that it is something that is really growing and offers real solutions?
BAZELON: I think so and I hope so. I mean there is such a hunger for victims to be better treated and better served. Every survey of victims, you ask them how they feel about their experience and they tell you that they felt betrayed and disappointed and shunted aside and ignored. I don't think victims should control criminal prosecutions, but I think offering a real opportunity for reckoning and apology, and restitution in some cases, those things that restorative justice offers where you bring people who've done harm and people who've been harmed, you bring them together and you get them to really process what's happened and try to come up with some mutual solution.
I mean, that is something that should really expand in our system and we've barely scratched the surface of the potential there.
WATKINS: And then, you've done reporting for this book, and your reporting for the podcast is ongoing, I think, could you talk a little bit about the challenge of being a white woman with a white child as you say, you're telling the stories of people who have been harmed by a justice system and those people are almost uniformly nonwhite and as the person telling the story, you are not someone who suffers the harms directly usually of that system. So do you want to talk a bit about how you have navigated that challenge?
BAZELON: I think it's just a crucial challenge to recognize and take seriously and think hard about. The big mistake is to pretend that it doesn't matter because it totally matters. And I ran up against the limits of my white mom journalist self in trying to spend time with Kevin and people like him in places like Brownsville. Why should some 20-year-old kid in Brownsville who has a really different life want me to be hanging around with him? That can be a hard sell, and I get that. And I just try to be frank and honest about it.
So, one other thing about the podcast—which is a companion to the book and is also called ‘Charged’ and is out from Slate—the podcast lets people really speak for themselves. You can hear their voices. I mean, I hope that people feel like I accurately told their stories in my book, but there is an intimacy to hearing people's voices that that kind of audio journalism allows for, which I find really helpful for navigating these issues of race and class.
I do try to make sure that I work with people of color, whether it's for my podcast, my producers or I have friends who I trust who are journalists, or just people in the world who read all my work, who help me think through these issues. So I try to make sure I'm touching base with people who are closer to the lived experience of my subjects than I am.
And I also acknowledge that I'm going to make mistakes. That is how it goes when you're out there trying to report things. When someone points out a mistake, I try to be honest about it and figure out how to improve what I'm doing as opposed to responding defensively.
WATKINS: Well, I'll just add my voice to the chorus, then, of people saying that I think you're doing a really tremendous job of navigating precisely those challenges. And I think the book is really a great contribution to the debate. And I'm looking forward to hearing more episodes of the podcast. Thank you so much for making the time to join us today.
BAZELON: Oh, totally my pleasure.