The Marshall Project’s Editor-in-Chief Bill Keller on Redefining Criminal Justice Reporting

Encore: July 24, 2014

With growing bipartisan demand for criminal justice reform in the U.S., a non-profit news start-up launching later this year aims to improve reporting and support conversation on the topic. Founded by former hedge fund manager and journalist Neil Barsky, the Marshall Project aims to fill a gap in the in-depth coverage of American legal and corrections systems.

Bill Keller, formerly the executive editor of The New York Times, joined the Marshall Project as editor-in-chief in February 2014. 

“The idea is to try to restore some of the aggressive accountability coverage of the criminal justice system that’s been lost as the American media downsizes in a lot of really important ways,” Keller told anchor and reporter Jack Ford.

According to Keller, covering the criminal justice beat can be labor- and time-intensive, particularly for newspapers and broadcasters in dire financial straits. In addition to featuring original reporting and commentary on the justice system, the Marshall Project will also act as an online hub for conversation between journalists, advocates and scholars.

“What makes us different is that assuming we raise all the money we need, we’re not going to be worried about advertisers or turning off readers… We have a long list of features, some of which will be daily, some will be weekly, some will be monthly, but all aimed at raising public interest, public attention, and frankly a sense of urgency about the condition of our criminal justice system,” Keller said.

Ford and Keller screen and discuss a clip from a new documentary from PBS’ POV series, called 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story. The film follows a young Florida man sentenced to four consecutive life terms for crimes that took place when he was fourteen.

When it comes to public perceptions of juvenile crime today, Keller says that “the pendulum has swung very much in the opposite direction.”

“The increase in the severity of punishment of juveniles tracks along with the increase in the incarceration rates overall. It’s a symptom of a society that’s afraid, even afraid of its kids,” he said. The United States is the only country where juveniles serve life sentences without parole for non-lethal crimes. In 2010, the Supreme Court case Graham v. Florida ruled juvenile life sentences for non-lethal crimes unconstitutional.

The Marshall Project, named after Supreme Court Justice and civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall, is slated to launch later in 2014.

15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story premieres on the POV (Point of View) series on August 4, 2014 at 10pm on PBS stations. 


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