Sunday, September 30, 2007

How Coverage Is Supposed to Be

One of the things I appreciated most about my time in Madison was the excellent coverage of corrections sentencing issues by the two major newspapers in the state, including Madison's Wisconsin State Journal. Its publisher was pretty much your typical ideological basketcase, but the reporting was thorough and tough when it needed to be. To get a good example of what I'm describing, check in here to its series on a "bad" prosecutor, a more usual one than just those yahoos who've been making the news lately.

Please note that the DA in Madison is a "good" prosecutor and so is the bulk of his office. The DA has nailed some of the unfortunately too frequent and accepted corruption at the Capitol on a disturbingly regular basis. And he has a stated commitment to evidence-based practice and to a legitimate justice system, as you'll see when you read this story. But even good prosecution offices can be seriously tainted by ADAs "with passionate devotion." Note as well how "hard work" substitutes for "good work" for too many of this ADA's supporters and how he has a reputation for "honesty" despite the facts documented in this first of the series. And most of all, note how the bad behavior is justified by his commitment to victims, as if that makes it all right, which, unfortunately, it does to too many in our communities. The problem, of course, is that he's defining the "victims" and, as I've mentioned before, "victims" is a very diverse term, far more diverse in our opinions and desires for the system than what he is clearly picturing. The good victims organizations know that misuse of the system in their name not only frequently puts innocent people in jail and the true victimizers still free to continue but also creates distrust of the system by those whose cooperation will later be necessary to bring true offenders to justice.

The best thing about this story is the paper's willingness to delve in so deeply and bring this to light. "Light" is the necessary desanitizer for so much of the truly abhorrent behavior by not just prosecutors but also judges and defense types that has delegitimized and undermined so much of our sentencing system, and it's not shined nearly enough. Transparency and thorough and accurate data make it possible for us to restore some of the lost confidence and to refute the silliness so much of our justice rhetoric is infected with these days. Every newspaper in the country should have a full-time reporter whose job is to apply the same careful and objective eye to all the court participants that the Journal is this week. Hopefully their colleagues will be paying as much attention as I will be.

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