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Happy Birthday to The Marshall Project

Our founder reflects on the first five years.

The Marshall Project began publishing five years ago today, but in many ways its birthday was actually Feb. 9, 2014.

That was the day The New York Times announced that its former executive editor Bill Keller would be joining us as founding editor.

That evening, I attended a large dinner at John Jay College of Criminal Justice honoring Piper Kerman, the formerly incarcerated writer whose book and Netflix series, "Orange is the New Black," had become a cultural phenomenon. I was new to this world and so appreciative when John Jay's then-president Jeremy Travis spoke of the positive developments in criminal justice reform by citing our creation, and Bill's hiring, and then pointed to me as the founder of this new enterprise.

After dinner, I was approached by a woman I had never met. "My name is Soffiyah Elijah," she said. "I am the executive director of the Correctional Association, and I would like to help you.”

Within days, Bill and I met with Soffiyah, who had compiled a dossier of testimonials about guards’ brutality from incarcerated men at Attica Prison. Bill assigned a story about Attica to veteran investigative reporter Tom Robbins, who went on to verify and dig deeper. A year later, in partnership with The New York Times, we published the earth-shattering “Attica’s Ghosts.” Shortly after our story appeared, the three guards accepted a guilty plea, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation and more than 1,800 cameras were installed in the hallways where the abuse took place. The story was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Such is the power of first-rate journalism, and such are the advantages of being part of a community of people who care deeply about justice.

I founded The Marshall Project five years ago to address two urgent needs: first, I believed our criminal justice system, and the mass incarceration it spawned, was a national disgrace. At the same time, I was mindful that there were already thousands of committed individuals fighting for reform in the courts and on the streets.

What we needed was a national conversation that would prompt people to understand the urgency of criminal justice reform. The idea that we had become the world's largest jailer—that there were more people incarcerated or on parole or probation in the U.S. than live in the countries of Libya, Lebanon or Laos—was at the periphery of American consciousness. As a former journalist, I was mindful of the power of honest storytelling. As an idealist, I felt that if only Americans knew the truth, changes would soon follow.

The second phenomenon I wanted to address was the collapse of the journalism business model. Massive layoffs, or newspaper closures, were the order of the day, and it was clear that nonprofit journalism held one key to journalism's future. I realized that The Marshall Project needed to make a case for itself to funders. Since our launch, I have been heartened by the response we've had from the funding community. Most people intuitively understand the power of non-partisan journalism.

I can list the hundreds of ways The Marshall Project has made a difference—laws and regulations that were changed, minds that have been opened, lives that have been touched. We are undeniably a force in the struggle to put criminal justice reform front and center in our national conversation.

More prosaically perhaps, I am proud of our organization. Having built our first-class newsroom and won almost every journalism prize in the world, Bill retired this year. Our new editor Susan Chira is now bringing her own brand of creativity and excellence. Our president Carroll Bogert runs the business and strategic side of The Marshall Project, and I am daily awed by her energy, intellect and vision.

Looking back five years, I take solace in what The Marshall Project has achieved, and the extraordinarily talented people who will take us through the next five years. But I am hardly complacent. There is still a massive amount of work to be done.