Bill Keller: Holding the Criminal Justice System Accountable

Photo Credit: Zengzheng Wang

In February 2014 Bill Keller shocked the media world when he left the New York Times after 30 years to start a national conversation about the U.S. criminal justice system as editor of The Marshall Project.

“This felt like an area where there might actually be a chance to make a difference,” Keller said.  

The project aims to use the power of the Fourth Estate “to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system,”  Keller said.

“We’re not an advocacy group, so we’re not proscribing specific solutions,” Keller said. “Our job as journalists is to hold the system accountable for doing its job.”

Since its launch in November 2014, The Marshall Project has published over 400 stories in partnership with around 60 news organizations. They have brought readers inside New York’s Rikers Island prison, confronted President Barack Obama about his record on pardons and commutations and shed light on how “implicit bias” affects the amount of time public defenders spend with their black clients.

This past April The Marshall Project, in partership with ProPublica, won its first Pulitzer Prize for its piece “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.”

Though he wasn’t shocked the story won a Pulitzer, Keller said he’s been surprised at how fast the organization has grown.

“I thought it would take a couple of years before we would be as well known as we are,” Keller said. “You don’t do this work for the prizes, but it’s a nice sign that we’ve got the credibility with our peers, and that we’re off to a good start.”

Keller, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1988, has had plenty of experience helping a news organization develop credibility. He was named executive editor of the Times in 2003 and was tasked with repairing the paper’s image in the immediate aftermath of the infamous Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal that rocked journalism to its core.

During his eight-year tenure, he also worked through Judith Miller’s inaccurate coverage of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program leading up to the 2003 invasion and when Miller refused to divulge her source in the 2005 Valerie Plame scandal. Miller spent 12 weeks in jail before her source, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, allowed her to reveal his name.

The Times won 18 Pulitzers during Keller’s time as executive editor. He stepped down in 2011 to return to writing.

In January 2014, Keller made his interest in criminal justice reform known in his column “America on Probation,” in which he called America’s “overstuffed” prisons a “shameful waste of lives and money.”

Shortly thereafter, he was approached by former hedge fund manager and journalist Neil Barsky about starting The Marshall Project.

Keller said that part of what drew him to The Marshall Project was that he missed being an editor.

“I found I sort of missed working with reporters and sitting around a table with a bunch of smart people trying to figure out how you’re going to cover an important story.

“So, in some ways, it was going back to something that I really loved,” Keller said.

About a month after this column ran, he announced he was leaving The Times to take over The Marshall Project.

“It was mostly exciting,” Keller said. “I mean, I guess a little scary because you don’t really know until the donations start to flow whether you can sustain it, and still, we have to paddle hard to keep our heads above water.”

While he may have been concerned about securing funding, Keller said he wasn’t at all worried about finding stories.

“Even if nothing much happens at the federal level, a lot of the states are experimenting with reforms,” Keller said. “So there was clearly going to be a lot to write about, and a chance that by writing about it we might actually have some impact.”

Keller said he doesn’t measure the impact of the Marshall Project on specific laws or reforms that are passed.

“Sometimes making a difference is more subtle than changing a law, or getting somebody punished,” Keller said.

A perfect example of this, Keller said, is the piece that won The Marshall Project its Pulitzer, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” which was written in partnership with ProPublica.

The piece recounts the story of a woman who reported being raped, only to recant after police questioned her about inconsistencies in her report.

She was charged and publicly shamed for lying to police. It wasn’t until years later that authorities learned she had been the victim of a serial rapist and was telling the truth.

“We’ve heard since then that some police training academies are using that article to teach police on how to be sensitive in handling rape victims,” Keller said. “And the same thing is true of a couple of trauma departments of big hospitals. They’re training people in their emergency room how to be sensitive to rape victims when they show up at the emergency ward.

“That’s really rewarding when you get that kind of response,” Keller said.

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(Photo Credit: Zengzheng Wang)


Last October Keller sat down with President Obama and asked him about his record on pardons—which clear the records of people who have already served time and been released—and commutations—which shorten the sentences of people who are currently serving time.

During the interview, Obama said that “over the next year and a half you can expect that I’m making a big push to get as many of these cases reviewed, and I don’t put either a floor or a ceiling in terms of how many commutations we might do.”

On May 5, Obama announced the commutations of 58 federal prisoners, bringing the total number of clemencies he’s issued to 306, according to ABC News.

“He’s not done yet, and I think there’s some expectation that there’ll be more commutations before his term is up,” Keller said. “He’s done a lot less in the area of pardons… He’s done on the whole a better job than most of his predecessors on commutations, not so much on pardons.

“But he’s not done yet,” Keller said. “And it’s one area where the Constitution gives the executive branch almost complete authority to decide on clemency.

“It’s the one area where I think everybody agrees that he’s got complete executive authority to grant clemency to people,” Keller said.

“Most of what he’s done in terms of commutations is not giving everybody a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Keller said. “Usually the cases get reviewed by a judge to make sure that you’re not letting somebody out who has really demonstrated during their time incarcerated that they’re not rehabilitated and they’re dangerous.”

Along with monitoring Obama’s progress on clemency, Keller said he’s also been following the impact the presidential campaign season has had on candidates’ views on criminal justice reform.

With the national spotlight on them, some candidates have not wanted to be viewed as soft on crime, Keller said.

“The single most obvious example of that is Ted Cruz, who a year or so ago was a supporter of sentencing reform, and as candidate Cruz turned against it and warned that anybody who supported shorter sentences would be held to account by the voters,” Keller said.

“I don’t think it’s stopped reform in its tracks,” Keller said. “There’s still some sign of life. It’s a very faint pulse, but there’s still a bit of life in the sentencing reform bill, although it’s watered down considerably the one at the federal level.”

Keller said he’s disappointed the criminal justice system hasn’t been a more prominent issue on the campaign trail this election season.

“I wish candidates were talking about it more,” Keller said. “They are talking about it some. I mean, Hillary Clinton has begun talking a fair amount about mass incarceration, and the school to prison pipeline and things like that.

“So it hasn’t been invisible, and I like to think we maybe helped put it on the agenda a bit,” Keller said.

When it comes to the media coverage of the criminal justice system, Keller said “it’s hard to generalize about the mainstream media overall” but that their was room for improvement.  

“For the most part, I would say that the mainstream media is better at covering crime than covering criminal justice,” Keller said. “This is especially true of TV, and especially true of local TV.

“I guess I would fault the mainstream media in general on two counts,” Keller said. “One of them is not doing enough to cover corrections departments, prison system, police departments as institutions.

“And the other one is, by writing so much about crime, and especially lurid crimes, they have kind of contributed to a sense that the crime rate is worse than it is,” Keller said. “In fact the crime rate has been going down for the last 20 years steadily, and yet, if you watch your local TV news you wouldn’t know that.”

Keller said this type of sensational coverage has had an effect on potential reforms.

“I think it’s slowed things down,” Keller said. “The things that are driving the reform efforts are real. You have a general generation of Americans who have grown up with relatively low crime rates, and therefore, tend to be more sympathetic to reform.

“You’ve got, as I said, conservatives who’ve wised up to the fact that we send something like $80 billon dollars a year on criminal justice, but we still have this enormous recidivism rate,” Keller said. “So locking people up for 10 or 15 years for relatively minor crimes is not solving the problem.”

Keller said that serving as editor of The Marshall Project has been an eye-opening experience for him.  

“I get a surprise every week pretty much,” Keller said.

One thing that has stood out to him is a process known as double celling, in which two inmates are put in solitary confinement together in a cell the size of a parking space, Keller said.

“As you might imagine, that doesn’t turn out too well,” Keller said. “They end up sometimes killing one another. I had never heard of that.”

Keller said he’s was also surprised to learn how much of the criminal justice system has been privatized.

“Not just private prisons,” Keller said. “But private medical care for inmates, private food services, private transportation systems, private telecommunication systems, all of that kind of stuff, and the profit motive is not always a healthy thing to have in the justice system.”

While Keller said he has learned a lot over the past two years, he said it’s difficult to pinpoint one story the project has published that he likes the best. He points to “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” but then quickly concedes: “It’s like trying to pick your favorite kid.”

“How about my favorite story this week?” he said with a laugh.



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