In the process of editing this week’s cover feature by Jean Trounstine, a collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and Solutions Journalism Network, I wound up rereading the initial application that the former, BINJ, submitted to the latter, SJN, last year. Since we like to keep you abreast of how our media is made, I condensed the rather lengthy app (written by Jean and myself, along with others from BINJ) into the passage below in an attempt to better explain our ambitious endeavor.
Our project will report on grassroots campaigns fighting to reform two key elements of Massachusetts’s broken parole system: the epidemic of parole revocations that routinely send innocent people back to prison for noncriminal offenses, and the inhumane law of life without parole, which has been called “the other death sentence.”
America’s flawed punishment system, particularly its inhumane parole system, is in desperate need of reform. Every year, thousands of people have their parole revoked and are sent back to prison for trivial offenses. All while a record number of prisoners are destined to die a slow death behind bars with little opportunity for reform or rehabilitation. The Sentencing Project reports that the number of people serving life sentences in US prisons is at an all-time high: “13.9 percent of the prison population, or one of every seven people behind bars.” The punitive nature of our society has bled into all facets of the criminal legal system.
At the same time, the status quo of punishment is being challenged. A growing number of grassroots organizations, some anchored by community activists and formerly incarcerated experts, are fighting back—and our reporters, unlike most mainstream news outlets, are watching their progress.
Our reporting will examine the widespread use of life without parole (LWOP) sentencing, which has created a growing population of elderly prisoners who are unlikely to recommit a crime yet have no opportunity for reform or rehabilitation. We will also focus on campaigns to adopt new legislation in other states. Among other lines of inquiry, we will gather qualitative and quantitative data on both successful and failed reform legislation to get a better sense of what supervision strategies work and what strategies do not reduce the number of revocations for technical violations. This will enable us to gauge the potential for replicable solutions for use around the country.
Our approach will combine digital outreach and education with in-person community forums in both Cambridge, at Harvard Law School, and in Roxbury, where we will partner with local organizations that address these issues and work directly with the families of people serving LWOP sentences. These educational events will involve experts, activists, and community organizations, working from both inside and outside of prisons, to highlight the issues associated with America’s broken parole system.
Answering the SJN call for a spotlight to be put on “grassroots efforts that are reshaping neighborhoods and strengthening civic life,” these sources—for our articles as well as engagement events—will show how those who are commonly denied power are crusading on behalf of critical parole system fixes that could drive significant change.
CHRIS FARAONE, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF