Sarah Koenig spent a year inside Cleveland’s criminal justice system for season three of the Serial podcast. Along the way, she met some interesting people and had a birds-eye view of what justice (and injustice) look like for lawyers, judges, defendants, police officers, and the countless others who pass through the building’s courtrooms each day.
It’s once thing to study criminal justice empirically, as many academics do, but something else entirely to be embedded within the system as Koenig and her team were in Cleveland.
We invited Koenig to Penn State for an on-stage conversation with Democracy Works host and McCourtney Institute for Democracy Director Michael Berkman. They discuss community policing, the lack of data about what works and what doesn’t, and where college students should focus their energy if they’re looking to reform the criminal justice system.
A note to our listeners in the New York City area: Jenna Spinelle will be participating in a panel called “Podcasts to the Rescue! An Emerging Medium for Learning About Civics, Government, and the Social Contract” on Thursday, May 30 at the Metropolitan New York Library Council. The event is free and open to the public. We would love to meet you!
- If you’ve listened to Serial season 3, what did you find most surprising?
- Which part of the criminal justice system do you think is most in need of reform?
- How should that part of the system change?
- How much discretion should judges have when it comes to sentencing?
- What kind of data is needed to understand how to reform the criminal justice system?
- What is the relationship between law and justice?
[2:45] What about this season of Serial do you think captured people’s attention?
We tried to do what we know how to do, right? Which is to know how to make it narrative, as narrative as we could, and to introduce difficult concepts kind of slowly and not overload you with information. It’s become a topic that people are talking about and caring about in the last however many years and that’s personally a thrill to me, but I think that helps. The timing of it helped.
[3:54] Does season 3 relate to season 1?
A lot of people after season 1 were like “Well, what does this mean about the whole system? Can you extrapolate?” And it felt like, well that, no you can’t extrapolate off of one case that is pretty extraordinary. So it really did feel like, well let’s just go look and see the ordinary stuff. What is the baseline functionality of our system in a very, kind of day to day, mundane way, honestly. Let’s treat the courthouse as an office.
[6:10] What did you learn about the police in Cleveland?
So it was just a very typical, I mean if you read about for example, what’s happening in Baltimore, what’s happened in some other places. And it seems like the places where there has been any successful, true successful outcome from those consent decrees, I think Seattle has actually had a pretty good result if I’m not mistaken. It’s where they get buy-in from the police union, and it’s hard. In a place like Cleveland it’s very hard. It’s very old school. It’s very like, “Don’t tell me how to do my job, I put my life on the line every day.”
[9:40] What do people in Cleveland think about the idea of community policing?
They see the value of it and they think it’s valuable and they don’t want to be the people who, in a place like Cleveland, all you do is just get in your car and just race from call to call to call to call. And half the time, you’re at a call trying to deal with something and you get a call for a more major thing and so you’re ripped away, so then that person that you’re trying to help is like, there goes my guy. So, it’s bad for everyone, that kind of policing. They, they want it and they want, I think, to be able to have real interaction with people in communities.
[14:03] Judge Gaul comes up in several episodes throughout the series. Tell us about him.
His dad had been in county politics. He was getting near retirement age, so he was like mid-60’s. He’d been on the bench a long time, and in Cleveland, in Ohio, you know, county judges have an extraordinary amount of of discretion and latitude.I mean, it’s sort of like a cliché of the courthouse, but like they really do treat it as their own little kingdom. And so he had his style and his way of berating almost every defendant who came before him. He saw it as tough love. That’s how you get elected in Cuyahoga county. No one pays attention to judicial races, so you see the Democratic name, it’s an Irish name, you’re like, it’s vaguely familiar because there’s like ten thousand people named Gaul in the county and you’re like, “Oh yeah, that guy. I’m sure he’s fine.” And so that’s how these people stay on the bench forever.
[20:40] What did you learn about the way probation works in Cleveland?
Half the docket when I was watching would be a probation violation. Most of them were for things like staying out after curfew or going out of state for a funeral somebody’s funeral smoking weed. They’re having to come back through the thing and if you piss off the judge, especially, someone like Judge Gaul who has a temper, you can end up incarcerated. Part of the hugely frustrating thing we saw in Ohio, but I think this is again true in lots of parts of the country, there’s no data. We don’t keep data on this stuff. Nobody is tracking outcome say for when is probation is effective and when people start to slide off and violate more.
[27:50] What do you make of the momentum around electing progressive prosecutors to reform the system?
The focus that we have lately on progressive prosecutors and the big money that’s going into these prosecutors races across the country is fantastic, but it is one piece of the puzzle. This system is enormous and it has many different machines working at once. They do not often interact with each other well or at all. I get a little nervous when we start saying, “Oh, we’ve, we’ve figured out how to fix it, just elect a bunch of progressive prosecutors.” My fear is, yes, you can elect progressive prosecution, but you can also unelect those same prosecutors. So I would rather see a more systemic change.
[30:15] Where can young people have the biggest impact in criminal justice reform?
I would say like those kinds of agencies that are so unsex and it just feels like why would I want to go be a government bureaucrat and like a thankless job? If you’re asking where you can make a difference, boy, wouldn’t it be fantastic to have, um, the smartest, most compassionate, most energetic brains be working on juvenile crime.