By Neil Barsky, 11.15.2014
The seeds of The Marshall Project were planted a few years ago after I read two books. The first, Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” argues that mass incarceration — which dates roughly from President Ronald Reagan's War on Drugs in the 1980s to the present—represents the third phase of African-American oppression in the United States, after slavery and Jim Crow. Alexander documents how the United States came to be the world’s biggest jailer by enacting policies that represented a bipartisan shift in how we address addiction, mental illness, and other non-violent forms of misconduct. Fueled in part by a reaction to civil rights gains and in part by fear of escalating crime, Alexander claims, we enacted tough drug laws, imposed greater mandatory minimum sentences, and ignited a prison boom. Intent can be difficult to prove; impact is irrefutable.
The second, Gilbert King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Devil in the Grove,” explores the case of four African-American males falsely accused of rape in Lake County, Fla., and the vigilante violence that ensued. At the center of the drama was NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court justice, who bravely but largely futilely fought in Florida's courts to spare these young men's lives. This took place in 1949, before Brown v. Board of Education (a Marshall legal triumph) and before an organized national movement to combat the Jim Crow segregation laws. The national press did not cover the proceedings.
Spurred on by these chapters in American history, I continued to explore our country's system of crime and punishment. What struck me was not only how expensive, ineffective, and racially biased it is, and how difficult it is to find anyone, liberal or conservative, who defends the status quo. But also how our condition has become taken for granted. Other American crises — soaring health-care costs, the failure of public education — typically lead to public debate and legislative action. But the spike in mass incarceration appears to have had the opposite effect: The general public has become inured to the overuse of solitary confinement, the widespread incidence of prison rape and the mixing of teens and adults in hardcore prisons. The more people we put behind bars, it seemed, the more the issue receded from the public consciousness.
The Marshall Project represents our attempt to elevate the criminal justice issue to one of national urgency, and to help spark a national conversation about reform. I named our organization after Justice Marshall simply because he embodies the principles we hold dear. He was scholarly, he was courageous, and he fiercely believed that the U.S. Constitution was the template to secure civil rights for all.
The Marshall Project will practice open-minded, fact-based journalism without fear or favor. Our editor, Bill Keller, has assembled a first-class team of reporters and editors dedicated to excellence, nonpartisan reporting, and innovation. We are a journalism organization because we think that journalism, done honestly and well, has infinite power to drive change. One need only look to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements to appreciate how important journalists were in shaping public opinion. We do not need to be strident or ideological or selective in our use of facts . When the truth is as disturbing as it was in the segregated South, or in Vietnam, or today's prisons and courts, truthful reporting can have a powerful impact. We will explore what is working as well as what is broken, and where the potential exists for meaningful reform. Our commentary section will be written by individuals whose views encompass a broad range of perspectives. Our board of advisers, for example, includes both the inspirational civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson from the Equal Justice Initiative, and the conservative thinker Marc Levin from Right on Crime, both of whom have devoted their careers to making our system more humane and effective.
Being nonpartisan is not the same as being neutral. We approach the issue with the view — shared by a growing number of conservatives and liberals — that our system needs serious rethinking. Thank you for your interest in The Marshall Project, and please do not hesitate to tell us what you think.