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Mission Statement

The Marshall Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system. We have an impact on the system through journalism, rendering it more fair, effective, transparent and humane.

There is bipartisan agreement that the criminal justice system needs reform. Our reporting has shown that it perpetuates racial and economic inequities, costs taxpayers billions of dollars a year, and is toxic to those it incarcerates — and often to those who work in it. Police, courts and prisons are repositories of crises they are ill-equipped to handle, including mental illness, addiction and poverty. And victims of crime often feel re-traumatized by a system that is supposed to protect them.

Although we are not advocates, The Marshall Project often spurs change. Our journalism exposes wrongs, bringing them to the attention of officials who can take action. We give visibility to proposals and critiques from the criminal justice community. And we try to set an example for other media to cover criminal justice issues fairly and responsibly.

We partner with both national and local media outlets to reach diverse audiences who can be awakened to the issue. Our journalism informs criminal justice experts who need fresh and accurate information to do their best work. We also aim to serve and engage the millions of people whose lives have been ensnared in the criminal justice system, and whom the media have too often neglected and marginalized.

The Marshall Project has impact. A few examples:

You can read more about our impact here.

Our name is a tribute to Thurgood Marshall, a towering figure in the civil rights movement. We are committed to building and retaining a diverse staff and board, who bring a variety of experiences and perspectives to bear on the issues we cover. Read more about how we are building a diverse, equitable and inclusive organization in our annual diversity report.

Why The “Marshall” Project?

Thurgood Marshall is an American hero. His work as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, including the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, laid the groundwork for the modern U.S. civil rights movement. As the first African-American justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, he was a persuasive advocate for a living and breathing Constitution that sees beyond the prejudices of revolutionary America.

If Marshall were alive, I have no doubt that he would place criminal justice reform high among the urgent priorities of today’s civil rights movement, and that his would be a powerful voice for change. It is for these reasons that I chose to name The Marshall Project in his honor. — Neil Barsky, founder of The Marshall Project

Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) was a towering figure in the civil rights movement and the first African American justice to serve on the United States Supreme Court. Before joining the court in 1967, he worked as a civil rights lawyer, famously criss-crossing the South on behalf of black clients who were facing Jim Crow justice from white police officials, prosecutors, judges and juries. In 1940, at age 32, he founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and served as an executive there for two decades. He and his colleagues won a series of Supreme Court victories that gradually eroded the "separate but equal" doctrine, the legal underpinning of segregation in America. The most famous of those cases was Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 decision that declared unconstitutional segregation in the nation's public schools.

Nominated by President Lyndon Johnson, and confirmed by the Senate on a vote of 69-11, Marshall served on the Supreme Court for 24 years until his retirement at the end of the 1991 term. During his tenure, he was known for his strong support of First Amendment principles and was a reliable vote against the death penalty, even though he often said he was personally not opposed to capital punishment. He frequently sided with his fellow Warren Court jurists in seeking to protect and expand the constitutional rights of citizens charged with crimes, and he became a frequent dissenter during his later years as the Court moved rightward. The leader of that conservative shift, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, spoke at Marshall's funeral in 1993:

“As a result of his career as a lawyer and as a judge, Thurgood Marshall left an indelible mark, not just upon the law, but upon his country. Inscribed above the front entrance to the Supreme Court building are the words ‘Equal justice under law.’ Surely no one individual did more to make these words a reality than Thurgood Marshall.”

A letter from our founder

The seeds of The Marshall Project were planted several years ago, after I read two books. The first, the now-famous “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, 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 became the world’s biggest jailer by enacting policies that represented a bipartisan shift in how we address substance abuse, mental illness, and non-violent forms of misconduct. Partly fueled by a backlash to civil rights gains and partly 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 young Black men falsely accused of rape in Lake County, Florida, 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 fought to spare these young men's lives in Florida's courts, in a largely futile effort. This took place in 1949, before Brown v. Board of Education (a Marshall legal triumph) and before an organized national movement to combat Jim Crow segregation laws. The national press did not cover the proceedings, but Thurgood Marshall went on to a distinguished career as a civil rights attorney, the Solicitor General of the United States, and our country's first Black Supreme Court justice.

Spurred on by these chapters in American history, I continued to explore our system of crime and punishment. What struck me was not only how expensive, ineffective, and racially biased it is, but also how difficult it was to find anyone, whether they’re liberal or conservative, who defends the status quo. But our condition has become taken for granted. Other American crises — soaring healthcare costs, the failure of public education — typically lead to public debate and legislative action. But mass incarceration appears to have had the opposite effect: The public has become inured to the overuse of solitary confinement, the widespread incidence of prison rape, and the mixing of teens and adults in maximum security prisons. The more people we put behind bars, it seems, the more the issue has 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 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.

A lot has happened since our 2015 launch. Following a series of police shootings of unarmed Black people, the Black Lives Matter movement became a formidable force in the fight for racial justice. Many publications expanded their criminal justice coverage. And slowly, slowly, the number of people behind bars in America has fallen, but we remain among the world's largest jailers per capita. And the death of George Floyd and the election of a more reform-minded administration also suggest that our work has only just begun.

Something else has happened since our founding — local journalism has collapsed. In city after city, newsrooms have been hollowed out. Many cities no longer have daily newspapers. This means less accountability and a weaker democracy. The Marshall Project, as a non-profit funded by foundations and generous individuals, is in a position to fill the gap by teaming up with local news outlets or by opening up offices in cities where there is a desperate need for high-quality criminal justice journalism.

We believe that journalism, done honestly and well, has infinite power to drive change. We only need to look to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements to appreciate how important journalism is in shaping public opinion. I am a former reporter, and I have always believed that truthful story-telling is one of the most powerful ways to effect social change. We do not need to be ideological or selective of facts. When the truth is as disturbing as it was in the segregated South, or Vietnam, or today's prisons and courts, factual reporting can have a powerful impact.

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.

Our founding editor, former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, assembled a first-class team of reporters and editors dedicated to excellence, nonpartisan reporting, and innovation. Bill’s successor, Susan Chira, is building on his legacy of excellence. We explore what is working as well as what is broken, and where the potential exists for meaningful reform.

Thank you for your interest in The Marshall Project, and please do not hesitate to tell us what you think.