Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

The New York Times Swings at the L.A. County Justice System—and Whiffs

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I get it, even the New York Times needs page views now and then; and I know, Friday evenings aren’t the height of the news cycle. But even still, this is front page news (ok, well, homepage news)?

Meanwhile, I clicked on the NYT topic archive for “Los Angeles, Calif.” going back as far as October 2009 and found not a single article in that time span on the Los Angeles County criminal justice system’s actual problems. From a May 2010 ACLU report:

A report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union shows that overcrowding and unsanitary conditions that have plagued the jail for more than 30 years still persist, along with an apparent culture of violence and fear, including prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and the use of excessive force by deputies.

The picture of the jail that emerges in stark and disturbing detail in the report suggests that mentally disabled prisoners suffer some of the worst treatment, and that retaliation and a lack of transparency in conducting investigations into prisoner complaints make it difficult to assess the true extent of violence that occurs there.

I once hoped the plight of celebrity inmates might attract attention to the broader problem of mass incarceration, but I fear I may have been a bit too optimistic. Given that Lindsay Lohan will only serve about 25% of her 90-day sentence due to jail overcrowding, this would seem like a great opportunity for some entrepreneurial journalist to spin a flash-in-the-pan story into a more substantive piece on the ongoing crisis in the L.A. County jails. (A la this effective analysis of Lohan’s case from SentenceSpeak, the blog of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Of course the New York Times is not L.A.’s local paper and thankfully the L.A. Times has covered the jail crisis (e.g., this week’s article on the misnamed “suicide-safe” bedding). Nonetheless, if the NYT is going to venture into Lalaland you’d think it might try to do a good job of it. Even on its own terms this article is pretty weak — another example of the NYT‘s favorite genre, bogus trend journalism. The article juxtaposes L.A. County’s budget crunch with “what appears to be a growing number of celebrities gone bad, done wrong, or otherwise in need of adjudication.” You may be shocked to learn that no numbers are provided as to who qualifies as a celebrity, how many such individuals have “gone bad” this year compared to previous years, etc. There’s a fleeting mention of a 10% rise in “traffic filings alone” last year but no context as to whether that’s unusual or just a normal fluctuation, nor any reason to think that somehow celebrities account for a large proportion of traffic incidents. There’s no mention of the fact that every county in California is facing a budget crunch these days, even those with not a celebrity in sight. Oh well, good thing America’s flagship newspaper is doing such a good job since all the others are going out of business.

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