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Crime junkies and justice nerds, here’s your ‘best of’ reading list for 2019

  • Joseph Darius Jaafari
(Image via Creative  Commons license)

 Creative Commons

(Image via Creative Commons license)

It’s been a busy year for criminal justice news, across the nation and in the Keystone State. This year was the first time former inmates had an opportunity to press presidential candidates on criminal justice reform in a town hall at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Probation reform was a continued conversation, with bipartisan efforts to reduce the number of people sent back to prison for minor violations. Legislators also focused heavily on the safety for corrections officers

But outside of those day-to-day stories, there were some great investigations into Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system (including a few by us at PA Post). Here’s a rundown of some stories that came out in 2019 that are worth your time, along with a few impactful pieces from other parts of the country.

Spotlight PA:

Spotlight PA — a sister publication of PA Post — went to look at the racial data of police stops. For almost a decade now, there has been increased pressure on police to track this data and also make it widely available. Civil rights activists have long contended that police disproportionately stop black people more than whites. It was a criticism made about NYC Mayor Michael C. Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk tactics, which were proven to target black men in poor neighborhoods. When Spotlight PA asked for the data, turns out the state police didn’t track it

The Philadelphia Inquirer: 

Police unions are powerful entities in many cities, including Philly. In an investigation for the Philadelphia Inquirer, reporters found that close to 100 police officers were fired for misconduct and then rehired, thanks to the help offered from the Fraternal Order of Police, the union  representing Philly’s cops. In one example, a police officer was fired for breaking into his girlfriend’s house when he thought she was cheating on him. He was charged with criminal trespass, theft, burglary and criminal mischief and was subsequently fired. But because his girlfriend didn’t testify, the union argued — successfully — the cop should be put back on the force. 

PA Post

As the old adage says: crime doesn’t pay. But should it cost money? In an investigation into county budgets, PA Post found that inmates are charged a daily rent for their stay in county jails, up to $70 a day in some cases. Fines and fees within jail have been hotly contested, with a number of organizations suing local jails to stop charging inmates, who are already disproportionately poor. If inmates don’t pay after their release, the bills goes to collections agencies and negatively affects their credit scores. Some counties have done away with the rent and instead now just charge a one-time processing fee, which ranges from $20-35. 

From around the nation, here are some worthwhile reads to take on over the holiday break:


Can a Fitbit be a reliable witness in a court case? That’s the question that a California court had to take up when Tony Aiello argued he wasn’t the one who killed his stepdaughter, Karen Nevarra. Aiello said he was just delivering a pie to Nevarra’s home and left. But investigators in the case are looking at her Fitbit — a wearable fitness tracker — for the time of death, which places Aiello in her home when she was bludgeoned. WIRED looks at the problem with using Fitbit data as a means to prove time of death, but also discusses how the future of criminal investigations might be altered as we place more devices on ourselves. 

The Marshall Project:

When Chuck Coma was held in Lewisburg Penitentiary — a federal facility — for armed robbery, he sustained a brain injury after being strangled by his cellmate. The Marshall Project looked into the prison’s use of solitary confinement and the unique layout of Lewisburg’s prison, which houses two people to a tiny cell where both spend close to 24 hours each day. I interviewed the reporter who wrote the story, Christie Thompson, who talked about the importance of addressing prison conditions. 

Charleston Post and Courier:

Last year, Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina had one of the deadliest prison riots in recent memory. But up until last month, there was little people knew about the riot except for what the South Carolina Corrections Department said in press releases and to local newspapers. But in a deep dive that is superbly written, The Post and Courier published a long read that exposes the many problems at Lee, including how gangs ran the prison. For The Marshall Project, I wrote about a similar problem within Lee and how inmates were using cellphones to extort military servicemembers out of thousands of dollars. 

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