A deeper look at crime and public safety

So often, reporting on criminal justice becomes a list of incidents.

Shots are fired. Streets are taped off. Drugs are seized.

Chasing daily stories is a crucial part of reporting on a community. Citizens need to know where the crime is and how law enforcement is responding. But it’s just as important to take a deeper look at the issues that influence crime and how institutions are handling their obligations to keep the community safe.

I’m Jeffrey Benzing, the criminal justice and public safety reporter at PublicSource. Our goal is to tell those broader, more in-depth stories.

Much of that reporting depends on data to show how the criminal justice system functions. The stories aren’t about how an individual defendant commits a crime and gets locked up, but rather on how the process works and the impact police, prosecutors and prisons have on public safety.

While so much of the reporting is based on statistics, criminal justice is also foremost about people.

I saw this most vividly while reporting on juvenile justice in Baltimore as a graduate student at the University of Maryland.

My profile subject was Tyrone, an 18-year-old who’d been through the juvenile system and had already been arrested as an adult for selling heroin, cocaine and marijuana. He showed me scars from that life. He’d been stabbed in the head. He raised his shirt to show where he’d been hit by a cluster of bullets just yards from where we were talking. He’d had most of a finger shot off.

He was soft-spoken. He said he loved movies with Tom Hanks. He loved music.

He was already intimately familiar with the courthouse on North Avenue, but if we’d met in another context, I wouldn’t have assumed he’d been through the system at all.

The choice to sell drugs was his own, but it became clear that there were many forces in his life he couldn’t control. He hated his neighborhood. It was pessimistic and dangerous. He told me how nice it was to leave the block on a trip with his mentor to Hershey, Pa.

He couldn’t find work. It wasn’t just his criminal record. He also lacked skills, and he knew the money was guaranteed if he sold drugs on the corner.

Not long after that project, I took a job in Washington, D.C., covering the Justice Department. Over two years, I saw one side – how a massive institution prioritizes enforcement of federal laws.

After reporting on the inner workings of justice system at the highest level, I came to PublicSource hoping to blend that institutional view with a focus on the human stories (and lots of data).

Whether the stories deal with sentencing disparities, incarceration, drug enforcement, or any number of other issues, we want to explain not only the patterns revealed by data but also to show why they should matter to our readers.

In that pursuit, we’re always looking for new angles and story ideas, so if public safety and criminal justice issues we aren’t already covering stand out in your community, don’t hesitate to call us.

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Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or jbenzing@publicsource.org.