The following is a conversation between Carroll Bogert, President of The Marshall Project, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: In order to reform a system that needs fixing, it is necessary to shine a light on it and then keep that issue in front of people and in the collective consciousness of society. This is especially true when you’re talking about something that is complicated, difficult, not terribly transparent, and fairly expensive to cover and investigate… like the criminal justice system. But that is exactly what The Marshall Project has set out to do. And here to discuss it with us is their President, Carroll Bogert.
Good evening, Carroll, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Carroll: Thank you so much for having me.
Denver: Tell us about the mission and goals of The Marshall Project and how the organization came to be?
Carroll: We’re a nonprofit newsroom. We’re a group of journalists. I think when people hear about a criminal justice organization, they think we must be lawyers or advocates. We’re neither of those things. We’re journalists, and our editor in chief is Bill Keller who used to be the editor of The New York Times. And our job is to focus laser-like on the criminal justice system, bring to light its problems, and also suggest what might be part of the solution.
It came into being because our founder had been a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He actually covered Trump and the real estate industry back in the 1980s. Then he left journalism to go into the world of finance, made a lot of money, retired and said to himself–he talks about himself as having woken up–and said, “Whoa, I slept through the era of mass incarceration!” Like, “What happened to my country? Somehow, we became the world’s biggest jailer!” And he started thinking about what he could do about it, and he really felt that journalism — focused and trained on this one issue consistently, raising the alarm about how screwed up the system is — could really be a help to reform.
Denver: Well, The Marshall Project is named for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Tell us about his life and why it is so fitting that your organization is named for him.
Carroll: He really is a civil rights hero. He was the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. He was put on the bench just about exactly 50 years ago this year. He grew up in Baltimore. He was the founder of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. And in that capacity, he really crisscrossed the country covering all manner of cases. There’s a new movie called Marshall, which is in theaters right now, about a case that he was involved in in the state of Connecticut. The case that made him known to our founder and the reason that our founder Neil Barsky wanted to name The Marshall Project “The Marshall Project” is because of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book called Devil in the Grove. And I really would recommend it to any listener. It reads like a page-turning kind of detective novel, but it’s a case of four young men who were charged with the rape of a white woman down in Florida in the 1940s and the incredible suffering that results, and how Thurgood Marshall takes up the case. So, he’s a very special figure in American history.
Our name is, I think, sometimes confusing to people. They say, “Wait! “The Marshall Plan?” And I always say, “No, no. Not George Marshall. This is Thurgood.” I had one guy who asked me, “Are you named after John Marshall?” who of course, was a Supreme Court justice in the 19th century. I said, “Well, that’s close. But it’s still not the right Marshall. Our Marshall is Thurgood, and he was a very special guy.” I’ve spoken to a lot of his clerks, the people who clerked for him on the Supreme Court, and another wonderful thing about Thurgood Marshall is that he was funny.
I think people don’t realize that we have more than 2 million people behind bars at any one time in this country. And that there are more than 7 million people who are in some way, intimately- either they’re behind bars or they’re on probation or parole. Seven million is a lot, and in terms of those people who have some kind of criminal record or involvement, it’s said to be more than 70 million.
Denver: Yeah. I’ve heard that about him. What are some of the things, Carroll, that most people simply don’t know or understand about our criminal justice system?
Carroll: I think people don’t realize that we have more than 2 million people behind bars at any one time in this country. And that there are more than 7 million people who are in some way, intimately–either they’re behind bars or they’re on probation or parole, 7 million is a lot. And in terms of those people who have some kind of criminal record or involvement, it’s said to be more than 70 million. So, it’s just a huge proportion of our society that gets entangled in one way or another… with cops, with courts, with prisons, in the re-entry system. When you look at it as totality, it’s eating up a gigantic proportion of our budget at the federal and state level, and it’s really causing misery for tens of millions of people because you also have to think about the families of people who are incarcerated and the spillover effects of every one of these interfaces with the criminal justice system. It’s a system that just doesn’t work. It’s not efficient or effective. It’s not fair or humane. It’s certainly not transparent, and a lot of what we do is to try to reveal what’s actually going on.
Prisons are, by definition, places that are shut away from public view. It’s very hard to find out what’s going on inside of them, and that’s part of what The Marshall Project does.
Denver: When did discussion about the criminal justice system… not criminal justice… but the system itself really get started in this country? Was there a catalyst or a series of events that really launched this conversation?
Carroll: It’s interesting. I remember being a cub reporter for Newsweek magazine in the Beijing Bureau in 1986, and a telex, remember telex?
Denver: I sure do!
Carroll: That tells you how old I am. A telex came over the wire. It was from our editor in chief, and he was telling all the correspondents of Newsweek magazine that a drug war had been declared by President Reagan, and we were going to be, by George, covering this like a war. And that was the tenor of those times. And when we think about media coverage of criminal justice, we have to remember how the media had been complicit and really a part of this huge drive to over-incarcerate people, to deal harshly with super predators, kids who are wilding. There was a lot of bad rhetoric and overblown, overheated media reporting in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s that brought us this mass incarceration problem. And I think the discussion of it, it’s in part been sparked by Ferguson, by Black Lives Matter protests, by the discussion in the African-American community about the incredible racial injustice that’s embedded in the criminal justice system. So, it’s really been in the last couple of years that this has, I think, gathered force, and that’s part of why The Marshall Project is only three years old. And we, I think, are really springing out of this new interest in not crime reporting, but criminal justice reporting. It’s a different thing.
Denver: Yeah. I think a lot of it has to do with cellphones and getting this all on video that we can see. And it was pretty abstract until we could see it on our television sets and really just change everything.
Carroll: That is so true. There was the Rodney King incident, if you remember that footage back in ‘92 in L.A., but it’s definitely gathered pace since Eric Garner and Philando Castile and all of the sort of police malfeasance.
There is a conservative case to be made for criminal justice reform, and many people on the right side of the aisle– as opposed to the left side of the aisle– make that case. And we could at one time… I would say its prospects are a little dimmer now… but we could envision real criminal justice reform coming out of Washington because it’s something that Republicans and Democrats could agree on.
Denver: As you investigate and cover stories about the criminal justice system, which is challenged to be very kind, the line between journalism and advocacy could get pretty hazy. How do you go about being sure that you don’t cross that line but maintain it?
Carroll: That is an important question for The Marshall Project because, of course, there are many advocates working in the space. The ACLU or Human Rights Watch where I used to work, for example. And what we do is something really different. We endeavor to tell both sides of the story. We’ve been criticized, for example, for giving a platform to a bail bondsman. There are many people who just think the bail industry is evil incarnate. How could we possibly give a microphone to somebody who wants to explain his point of view? Well, we think it’s important that–you can agree with the bail bond industry or not, but even if you don’t, it’s important that you know how they think and who they are. We really strive to be as fair as we can, and of course, that’s hard. The criminal justice system is by definition riven with people with opposing points of view.
Think of a courtroom. That’s a place where one person is saying one thing and somebody else is saying something different. So, being able actually to navigate the line of what’s the truth here, it can be very difficult. But in all of our reporting, we strive to be fair to both sides. And I think part of what brought me to The Marshall Project, I’m part of–I know what brought our Editor-in-Chief Bill Keller to The Marshall Project is the feeling that this is possibly a human rights issue on which we could make progress. There is a conservative case to be made for criminal justice reform, and many people on the right side of the aisle — as opposed to the left side of the aisle — make that case. And we could at one time… I would say its prospects are a little dimmer now… but we could envision real criminal justice reform coming out of Washington because it’s something that Republicans and Democrats could agree on.
Denver: Let’s talk about that a little bit. It is a bipartisan issue. But depending on what side of the political spectrum you’re on, you come with a different motivation. Tell us what those different motivations would be from the left and from the right.
Carroll: I think on the right, there is a lot of motivation, if you look at the Koch brothers, for example, who have funded a lot of criminal justice reform organizations. They’re primarily interested in saving money. It’s outrageous how much money this country spends locking people up. It’s not money well spent, and they feel, really, the money could be spent elsewhere. I think there is criticism on the left of that; I don’t know left or right, but can we really spend less? If we let a lot of people out of prison, can we just throw them into society without support? If we are going to get mentally ill people out of prison — because a lot of mentally ill people are in prison — can we just let them out and put them on the street? Don’t we have to spend that money in other ways and in other programs that are going to support people?
Denver: But it may be money better spent.
Carroll: It might be money better spent, but it may not mean that we save a lot of money if we reform the criminal justice system. The other argument that you hear a lot on the right is really one about just forgiveness and redemption. Like, people deserve a second chance. And their conviction should not follow them to the grave. If they’ve served their time, let them live freely.
We did a story recently… very interesting, about right-wing support in many red states for public defenders, defense of the indigent. And the argument is, “Hey, poor people deserve an adequate defense against the government. The prosecutor comes at you with all guns blazing, he’s got the whole weight of the government behind him, and here you are, a little individual facing off against the government. Somebody’s got to help you.” So, there are some people on the right who feel that this is an issue of tyranny and tyranny over the individual and a big system, a big government system that crushes the little guy. So, there are a lot of ways to come at this issue, and many people also come at it really just through a racial lens that this system is fundamentally racist and has to be reformed.
Denver: Well, President Trump as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, they’ve taken a pretty explicit “law and order” line around issues like immigration. Has that impacted your priorities and the kind of reporting you are doing at The Marshall Project?
Carroll: We did feel after the election that we really had to have somebody on the ground in Washington, but I would have made that argument under Obama as well. It just became more urgent and frankly, it became easier to find the funds to pay for it because a lot of people said, “Yeah, go to Washington and keep an eye on that guy.” But to be honest, I think the place where The Marshall Project needs to do the most reporting now is at the state and local level.
Denver: That’s where the change is happening.
Carroll: Criminal justice is basically a state and county issue, that’s who runs the police force, the prisons, the whole system. And there are a lot of interesting experiments happening at the state level. What’s happening in California, they led the country into this mess with the whole three-strikes-you’re-out move, but they’re kind of leading the country out of this mess with a lot of–they’ve reduced their prison population, a lot of interesting experiments. So, yeah. The federal level can be somewhat dispiriting if you are looking for criminal justice reform. It seems to be stalled in Congress, but there is so much happening at the state level. There’s actually a lot to be optimistic about.
Denver: That’s good! Let’s turn to some of the reporting on stories that you have covered. Last year, The Marshall Project, in partnership with ProPublica, won a Pulitzer Prize. Congratulations! The youngest organization ever to win it. Tell us about the story you did which earned you that coveted honor.
Carroll: It was an interesting story because our reporter was following a rape case in Washington state. A woman had accused her assailant, and the police got going on the case. And then they said, “Hmmm. There’s something about the way she tells her story that we don’t trust. She’s not crying and moaning the way a woman should do, and she’s been sexually assaulted.” They began to doubt her story. They ultimately ended up charging her with making a false allegation. Meanwhile, the rapist went on to rape many other women while the police were messing up this investigation.
So, our reporter saw this story come to light. Police had egg all over their face. The woman was extremely traumatized. He put it in what he calls his “will-call file.” That means: nobody is going to talk right now. Let me look at this in a year and see if I can get the principals to actually tell their stories. So that’s what he set about doing, and he was coaxing them along and getting them to talk. He was a persuasive character. And then he had that terrible day that every journalist fears, which is, “Oh no. There’s another guy working on the story.” It turns out there’s a guy in Colorado who is following the happy end of the story where the cops did the right thing and actually caught the rapist in the end. And instead of doing what people in journalism usually do, which is, “How can I beat this guy into print?” They called each other and said, “Let’s do the story together.” And when we published that story, and then when we won the Pulitzer Prize, it was like a loud bell ringing in the media industry. These are two nonprofit media organizations winning a Pulitzer for work they did in collaboration — not competition — with each other. That is something new in our world, and I think it tells you a lot about the future of the media industry.
Denver: That’s great. One of the biggest issues around criminal justice reform is reducing sentences for nonviolent offenses. So, let’s go back to Washington for a minute. This effort is being led by a Republican, Charles Grassley, and by a Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois. What’s the prognosis?
Carroll: Interesting you asked. We really were very optimistic even after Trump was elected that a Democratic President had been denied criminal justice reform victory because Republicans on the Hill didn’t want to hand him that victory. So, Obama was all for sentencing reform, but Mitch McConnell wasn’t going to give it to him. And I think there was some hope that now with a Republican White House, the Republicans on the Hill would be delighted to pass some sentencing reform, and it would be seen as a big victory for their party. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening. Congress is really just in such gridlock as you know, and they’re sometimes at loggerheads with the President, and nothing is really emanating out of Capitol Hill except a lot of furious tweets back and forth.
Denver: Yeah. That’s not right.
Carroll: So, we’re not too optimistic about that happening at the present moment, but you never know. Never say never.
Denver: Yeah. It’s not a micro issue. It’s a macro issue just in terms of nothing getting done down there at the moment. One of the stories that really grabbed my attention was the expectation that some states had of parents if their child was sent to prison. What was that about?
Carroll: Isn’t that incredible? So, in many states of this country and many counties in lower level jurisdictions, if your kid goes to jail, you — the parents– get handed a bill. We did a whole story about this. Incredible, right? These are parents, often people who are poor, and they’re suffering for the trauma of having their kids sent to jail. And they then they get a bill.
Denver: And they get a room and board bill.
Carroll: So, the lead of our story was about a lawyer in Philadelphia. He earned $316,000 a year, which is more than the Mayor of Philadelphia, and it was his job to sit across the table from poor parents and extract money from them for the state. And I have to tell you that our story went live on washingtonpost.com. We published in partnership with mainstream media. It helps us get a bigger audience. The Washington Post had it on the front page, went live early that morning, and by noon, the City of Philadelphia had announced that they were abandoning the practice and the lawyer was out. So, sometimes, journalism can really have impact.
There’s an interesting move afoot… bail funds. These are sort of charitable funds because most people don’t jump bail. You can get an almost perfect return on your investment if you invest in a bail fund, and you can also provide people a way of getting out of the system so that they’re not languishing behind bars. It’s a somewhat controversial move because there are many people who feel, “Hey, that’s just going to extend the life of bail. What we really ought to be organizing for is just the elimination of money bail. It shouldn’t exist at all, and there shouldn’t be bail funds because there shouldn’t be bail.” So, that’s kind of a debate in the reform community.
Denver: Yeah. That’s really nice to see that kind of reaction so quickly. It is said that people most likely to spend time in jail are not the worst offenders, but the poorest offenders. What impact does cash bail have on the criminal justice system?
Carroll: Yeah. You have an awful lot of people sitting in jails right now who haven’t committed a crime and certainly haven’t been convicted of the crime, but our system works so slowly that they sometimes are spending months and years behind bars. And of course, in New York City, we’ve seen the tragic death of Kalief Browder, a young man who was in Rikers for three years. And ultimately, it destroyed him. Jail is a very difficult place to be, especially as a juvenile.
There’s an interesting move afoot – bail funds. These are sort of charitable funds because most people don’t jump bail. You can get an almost perfect return on your investment if you invest in a bail fund, and you can also provide people a way of getting out of the system so that they’re not languishing behind bars. It’s a somewhat controversial move because there are many people who feel, “Hey, that’s just going to extend the life of bail. What we really ought to be organizing for is just the elimination of money bail. It shouldn’t exist at all, and there shouldn’t be bail funds because there shouldn’t be bail.” So, that’s kind of a debate in the reform community.
Denver: With the US representing about 5% of the world’s population, we have nearly one-third of all the female prisoners in the world. That’s more than 200,000 women and girls who are incarcerated, up 700% since 1980. And women in prison face a unique set of challenges. Speak to that and to this issue at large.
Carroll: We just did a big partnership with Teen Vogue actually. We interviewed several different women on video, and they produced a whole series, which was released last week. It is this very special issue because women… often they have children. They may be the sole caregivers of their children. The impact has to be understood. It’s not only on those women themselves, but on their families. And part of the Teen Vogue partnership that we did was also to talk to kids whose mothers had been in prison so that people get a sense of the full impact of this.
It’s an interesting phenomenon. It also surprised me to learn that the state that has the highest number of women incarcerated is Oklahoma. Go figure. I don’t think anybody has really gotten to the bottom of exactly why this is happening, and the reasons may be diverse in different states, but it’s a little-understood part of the criminal justice system… the impact on women and on families, which is so huge.
Denver: Yeah. I think 60% of the women in jail have children under 18 years of age. So it is a huge, huge issue.
Carroll: Exactly. And it is very hard for them to see their kids when they’re in jail, and they lose contact with kids. And kids grow up motherless. It’s part of how the criminal justice system has a huge impact, even beyond its own borders.
Denver: Well, those are extraordinarily effective videos and I really urge people to take a look. You mentioned this a moment ago, but tell us a little bit about your partnerships and the other media outlets and how you work together to create impact?
Carroll: It’s interesting. We’ve worked with more than 90 media organizations. So, we really co-publish. When we do a big investigation… because we’re investigative journalists, we’re not just hopping on the everyday news. We’re trying to take deeper looks. So, we’ll approach The New York Times or The Washington Post or NPR and say, “Hey, we have this story. Are you guys interested in co-publishing?” And often they are. Sometimes, they will commission the photography or do illustration or some data analysis. But really, the story is The Marshall Project’s.
Now, it’s often the case that people are reading a story in The New York Times, and they don’t know that it’s actually written by The Marshall Project. So we don’t always get credit for the work. That’s not as publicly understood that this is actually something The Marshall Project did. But for us, the most important thing is to get the information out there. And when you’re a media start-up, if you’re trying to attract readers to your website… We have about 400,000 readers every month, which isn’t bad, but we could have a million people reading a story that is on the front page of The New York Times. So, it’s a way of getting audience very quickly for our work.
Denver: You said a moment ago, it’s all about collaboration, so you have to do that. Speaking of collaboration, we had Richard Tofel, the President of the aforementioned ProPublica on the show a few weeks ago, and they, like you, are a nonprofit organization. It’s really a “brave new world” out there for journalism. Tell us how The Marshall Project is funded. And do you think this is a movement — nonprofit journalism — that is likely to continue and grow?
Carroll: We hope it’s a movement that’s likely to continue and grow. And I think people, when they think about where their charity dollars go, they think about giving to their local symphony or hospital or maybe the college they went to. And we hope that people will begin to understand that media is one of the things that people need to support. If we want serious information that’s deeply investigated, carefully researched and well written and presented, that’s not something that the commercial media sector can really supply in a democracy. And we’ve watched commercial media fall over a cliff in terms of their profitability. They have slashed jobs right and left. And often the investigative teams — the people who really go deep, who aren’t just tweeting away with their thumbs, but are actually doing deep, long– months-long shoe-leather investigations — those are the people who lose money the fastest because it’s so expensive to do this kind of work.
Denver: And you can hit dead-ends.
Carroll: You can hit dead-ends. You can dig dry wells, and you have to be willing to keep at it. You have to be willing to file Freedom of Information Act requests until your face turns purple. So, this part of the journalism world is the hardest to pay for. And I think philanthropy and charitable dollars is going to be one of the only ways to keep it afloat. The Marshall Project has an annual budget of $5 million a year. And a lot of that is larger donors, big foundations, but increasingly smaller donors, too. And we have a membership program, and we are finding hundreds and hundreds of people who have just recently signed up to be part of The Marshall Project because they believe in independent media, and they believe in a fair criminal justice system. And we’re somebody who can deliver, hopefully, on both those promises.
Denver: This past summer, you launched a membership drive. How is that membership drive working?
Carroll: It’s going great. We’ve had an incredible response from our community. And I think, part of The Marshall Project’s mission is to make more people care about the criminal justice system. A lot of the readers we have now are the people who are activists, policymakers, academics…people who really deeply care about the criminal justice system. They understand how The Marshall Project contributes to its reform, and they’ve been very generous in supporting us. But we really hope that this part of our funding can grow. That even the smaller donors who can chip in 25 bucks or 50 bucks a month, and make an on-going contribution to The Marshall Project, that’s very important to us. We really look at this as something that’s an expression of community. Who are the people who care about this issue? And who cares about independent media? Can we gather them together and get them all to agree that this is important? And can we stand up together and say, “Hey, America needs this!”
Denver: It’s always interesting, Carroll, to hear about the corporate culture of an organization, particularly a relatively young one like yourself. How would you describe the work culture of The Marshall Project? And what in your mind makes it unique and distinctive?
Carroll: We have a meeting every morning at 10 a.m. to discuss potential stories. And it has a wonderful free-for-all spirit. People often ask us: How do you decide what you’re going to write about? What kind of top-down directive tells people “Today is going to be about bail reform, and tomorrow we’re going to look at cops”. It doesn’t work that way at all. We really rely on our reporters who are out there with their ears wide open and their eyes wide open to bring good stories. And it’s a pretty young staff. Our editor in chief is a seasoned old dog, 30 years at The New York Times. But he hired a lot of smart young reporters, and he kind of sets them free. So, I would say it’s a fairly democratic culture at The Marshall Project. Also, we’re a start-up. We’re not even three years old. So, there’s a certain DIY feeling. We’re not hidebound. I came from Human Rights Watch, which is 40 years old and a fantastic, very effective NGO, but it’s kind of an ocean liner. It moves forward at a stately pace, very powerful and very effective. We like to think of ourselves at The Marshall Project as more of a kind of little Somali pirate boat. “Pew, pew, pew”.
Carroll: Yeah. Scrappy. We’re small, Denver.
Denver: And whatever has to be done, you do it, whether it’s your job or not.
Carroll: All hands on deck.
Denver: Let me close with this, Carroll. Looking ahead over the next few years, where do you hope to take The Marshall Project, both in the content that you will provide, but also the way you see it being delivered and consumed by audiences?
Carroll: I think a really important new direction for The Marshall Project is more visual journalism. So, you mentioned, we talked a little bit about the Teen Vogue partnership that we did last week. We had another unusual partnership, which is with the Weather Channel. They wanted to hear from us. They came to us and said, “We’re doing 50 states of climate change. What do you have?” And we said, “We got Texas prisons where temperatures can rise to 150 degrees, and only 20% of Texas prisons are air-conditioned. That means 80% of the prisoners in those prisons are sometimes living in temperatures over 100 degrees.” It’s absolutely brutal.
So, we did that as a video, and being able to see it rather than hear about it is so powerful. It helps people to make an emotional connection to the issue. It helps them to feel like they’re there. And the reason that’s so important is what we were talking about earlier. It’s hard to get into prison. It’s hard to be in a courtroom. Those are places where you often can’t get cameras. How can we visualize this for people? How can we make this part of our society, which is by definition, shut away? How can we put it in front of people and say, “Hey, you need to know about this. We’re citizens of this place together, and this is going on in our country.” We think that visual journalism may be the way to help people really feel and understand what’s going on in the criminal justice system.
Denver: Well, Carroll Bogert, the President of The Marshall Project, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Now, for people who want to read or watch some of this coverage, learn more about your organization, or maybe even become a member, where would you have them go?
Carroll: I would like them to go to www.themarshallproject.org. Please come and take a look.
Denver: And Carroll has two Ls as well.
Carroll: We’re a two-L kind of operation.
Denver: Thanks, Carroll. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
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