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Our Favorite Criminal Justice Reporting in 2016

Some of the best work from across the country.

We here at The Marshall Project consume a lot of criminal justice reporting, and most of our office chatter is of the jealous sort: Every day, we see stories we wish we had done. So we asked our staff to compile some of their favorite work of the year. It’s by no means a comprehensive list, but in a year of big headlines, you might have missed some of them. We’re glad there is so much great reporting out there, and we hope you are, too.

Probable Cause
John Sullivan, Derek Hawkins and Pietro Lombardi, Washington Post

This investigation revealed that Metro D.C. police routinely cite their own “training and experience” rather than specific evidence of a crime as justification for securing warrants to raid private homes. In almost half of these searches, about 99 percent of which took place in black neighborhoods, police found no drugs or contraband at all. — submitted by Eli Hager

The Scourge of Racial Bias in New York State’s Prisons and For Blacks Facing Parole in New York State, Signs of a Broken System
Michael Schwirtz, Michael Winerip and Robert Gebeloff, New York Times

Combining deep data work and powerful field reporting, these stories showed stark racial discrepancies in the nation’s fourth-largest largest prison system: Black prisoners are punished more severely and denied parole more often than whites. The stories also laid bare the extent to which guards use racism to cement their dominance. — submitted by Alysia Santo

Prison Broke: The Missouri Department of Corrections Can’t Escape Its Own Worst Habits
Karen Dillon, The Pitch (Kansas City)

Fans of metro newspapers — like me — have stories like this in mind when we shout from the rooftops about the importance of local watchdogs. This well-reported and evenly toned piece revealed an entrenched culture of virulent sexual harassment and coverups at the Missouri DOC. The agency’s commissioner resigned less than a month after the story was published. — submitted by Kirsten Danis

Unfounded: When Detectives Dismiss Rape Reports Before Investigating Them
Alex Campbell, Katie J.M. Baker, Buzzfeed

A dive into rape reports from Baltimore County found that detectives were regularly closing cases without ever speaking to the alleged victim. In several instances, rape cases were closed because police determined the victim hadn’t fought back hard enough. The story had swift impact: a month later, Baltimore County detectives promised to interview every potential victim of sexual assault. — submitted by Christie Thompson

Charged with murder, but they didn’t kill anyone—police did
Alison Flowers and Sarah Macaraeg, Chicago Reader

Much has been made about dubious role felony murder laws, which allow anyone to be convicted of murder if they participate in a felony that ends with someone's death — even if they didn't pull the trigger, or in some cases, even if they weren't present at the time of the crime. But the Reader uncovered more, identifying 10 instances when police shot and killed someone and then charged that person's friend or accomplice with felony murder. — submitted by Beth Schwartzapfel

Ryan Gabrielson and Topher Sanders, ProPublica (published in The New York Times Magazine)

Police and prosecutors routinely use a $2 roadside drug test as evidence of criminal wrongdoing, despite widespread evidence that these tests can produce false positives. ProPublica closely examined the impact on hundreds of wrongly convicted people, many incarcerated since their arrests, who didn’t know about the flawed tests and chose to plead guilty. — submitted by Alysia Santo

My four months as a private prison guard
Shane Bauer, Mother Jones

This blockbuster first-person piece details Bauer's undercover job as a guard in a Louisiana penitentiary run by Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the U.S. (It has since rebranded as CoreCivic.) Bauer witnessed violence and cost-cutting at every turn, and — as journalist Ted Conover did in his similar 2000 book, "New Jack" — examined his own evolving reaction to a job spent keeping other people locked up. — submitted by Beth Schwarztapfel

 'This Man Will Almost Certainly Die’
Seth Freed Wessler, The Nation

In this deeply reported take on the private incarceration industry, Wessler looked at immigration centers that have been outsourced from the federal government to for-profit companies. He identified 25 instances in which inadequate care likely contributed to a detainee's premature death. — submitted by Beth Schwarztapfel

Here is the Powerful Letter the Stanford Victim Read Aloud to her Attacker

The victim-impact statement written by the woman who was sexually assaulted by Stanford student Brock Turner is devastating, heartbreaking and ultimately, affirming. She put into words what so often goes unreported and unsaid. She later wrote an essay for Glamour on the sentencing’s aftermath, while her impact statement has been read publicly by actresses Sharon Stone and Amber Heard, among others. — submitted by Ken Armstrong

Policing the Police

In this PBS documentary, New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb takes viewers inside the Newark (N.J.) Police Department. Even with a well-intentioned mayor and a diverse police force, the city still struggles to improve relationships with the community and change police culture. — submitted by Yoli Martinez

Bias on the Bench
Josh Salman, Emily Le Coz and Elizabeth Johnson, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

After collecting and analyzing tens of millions of records over a year, the reporters behind this multi-part series revealed deep racial disparity in Florida’s sentencing, despite an effort to make the process more race-neutral. — submitted by Simone Weichselbaum

Should Prostitution Be a Crime?
Emily Bazelon, The New York Times Magazine

Carefully reported and dramatically illustrated with a series of intimate portrait collages, this was an excellent new take on the world’s oldest profession. It serves as a sensitive and nuanced introduction to the tangled ethics of sex work and its criminalization. — submitted by Alex Tatusian

The NYPD Is Kicking People Out of Their Homes, Even If They Haven’t Committed a Crime
Sarah Ryley, The New York Daily News and ProPublica

In New York City, an arcane statute meant to crack down on prostitution is being used instead to evict people from their homes or businesses for alleged “criminal activity” — even if they’re ultimately innocent. Unsurprisingly, the targets of such lawsuits are almost exclusively in neighborhoods of color. After the investigation, Mayor Bill de Blasio, the New York City Police Department and the City Council vowed to make changes. — submitted by Christie Thompson

News Inside

The print magazine that brings our journalism behind bars.

These are the 749 inmates awaiting execution on California’s death row
By Paige St. John and Maloy Moore, The Los Angeles Times

This fall, the California ballot contained two important initiatives on the death penalty — one to end it, and one to speed it up. Just before the vote, the LA Times released this deceptively simple interactive that allowed voters to explore the people who would be most affected by the propositions. — submitted by Kirsten Danis

The Police Killings No One is Talking About
Stephanie Woodard, In These Times

When compared to their percentage of the U.S. population, Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than any other group, including African-Americans. This exhaustively researched piece tries to examine why — while collecting individual stories that puts faces on the numbers. — submitted by Kirsten Danis

Death Penalty Series
The Villages Daily Sun (Lake County, Fla.)

In a remarkable series, a tiny newspaper found that while Florida’s death row is the second-largest in the nation, 74% of the 390 condemned would not be there if the state played by the same rules as everyone else. At the time the stories came out, Florida was one of only three states that do not require a unanimous jury for a death sentence. In October, the Supreme Court ruled the state’s scheme unconstitutional. — submitted by Beth Schwartzapfel

The New Geography of Prisons
By Josh Keller and Adam Pearce, New York Times

This excellent story was ostensibly about the geography of incarceration, but it also began to clue us into just how powerful prosecutors are. It showed that incarceration rates can vary dramatically even between neighboring counties, based on nothing more than the person who is bringing the charges. — submitted by Eli Hager

Shoot to Kill: Why Baltimore is One of the Most Lethal Cities in the U.S.
Justin George, The Baltimore Sun

This stunning series uncovered a surprising statistic: shootings are not necessarily more frequent now than they ever were — they're just more deadly. In wide-ranging interviews with everyone from trauma surgeons to survivors and their families to shooters themselves, George revealed an impossibly knotted web of violence that will leave readers despairing, but well-informed. — submitted by Beth Schwartzapfel

A Black Police Officer’s Fight Against the N.Y.P.D.
Saki Knafo, The New York Times Magazine

The nation’s largest police force has long maintained that it doesn’t have quotas for stops, summons and arrests — allowing the agency to dismiss critics who insist officers boost their numbers through discriminatory policing. A challenge to this is coming from within the department’s own ranks: Officer Edwin Raymond is one of 12 minority officers who filed a class-action suit to prove quotas are very real. — submitted by Celina Fang

An earlier version of this post incorrectly said "My four months as a private prison guard" was published in The Nation. It was published in Mother Jones.