An Introduction

Welcome to The Washington Post’s new blog on civil liberties and the criminal justice system.

(AP Photo/Detroit Free Press, Mandi Wright)
(AP Photo/Detroit Free Press, Mandi Wright)

Let me introduce myself. I’m Radley Balko. I’ve been on this beat in some form or another for about 10 years, now. I come here by way of the Huffington Post, where I was an investigative reporter and blogger; Reason magazine, where I had similar duties; and the Cato Institute, where I covered these issues as a policy analyst. I also recently wrote a book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.

A bit more about me: I’ve run a personal blog called The Agitator since 2002, although for the last couple years it was hosted at the Huffington Post. If I had to suggest one article I’ve written as a proper introduction to my work, it would be this one. I’m 38. I live in Nashville, Tennessee, in an apartment on Music Row that was once a hotel for musicians who came to town to record an album. (My building is a regular stop for most Nashville tours. They’ll tell all kinds of crazy stories about the famous people who have stayed here, about half of which are true. The building is also known for its Webb Pierce-designed guitar-shaped swimming pool.) I was born and raised in Greenfield, Indiana. I graduated Indiana University with a degree in journalism and political science. My preferred spirit is bourbon; wine: Malbec; beer: a brown ale. I prefer the mountains over beach, pie over cake, and, in the current debate gripping the punditocracy, I’m on Team Cold. I’m passionate about music, but have no real musical talent. I believe that if the band includes a stand-up bass, you’re probably going to have a good time.

I have a number of objectives in mind with this blog. I think I probably first identify as a reporter, so I hope to break some stories here. But I also plan to address what I think are some widespread and potentially harmful misconceptions about the criminal justice system. Most Americans learn about about the criminal justice system through procedural dramas on prime-time television, reality cop shows, and the local news. I’ll give you a few examples:

  • The number of dangerous defendants who “get off on a technicality” is so small, it’s barely significant. Somewhere between 90 to 95 percent of criminal cases are resolved with plea bargains before ever getting to trial. Among those that do get to trial, conviction rates in most jurisdictions run at 80 percent or higher.
  • Another striking misperception: The crime rate in America has been dropping dramatically since the mid-1990s. The murder rates in our largest cities are at lows we haven’t seen in a half century or more. Yet Americans consistently believe crime is getting worse, not better. Last October, 64 percent of respondents told Gallup that crime was getting worse in America. Only 19 percent correctly said that it’s getting better.
  • Likewise, the job of police officer is getting safer. Last year saw the fewest gun-related homicides of police officers since the 19th century. Assaults on cops are dropping, too. Yet we’re regularly told that policing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. In fact, you’re more likely to be murdered just by living in about half of America’s largest cities than you are while working as a police officer.
  • Everything you know about forensics is probably wrong. Those magical machines that churn out precise and detailed information based on a half-footprint, a fiber, or a clod of dirt so that Ted Danson or David Caruso can then go on to solve the crime? They’re mostly fictional. Prosecutors call this “the CSI effect,” and they complain that these shows condition jurors to expect far too much from forensic analysis. On the other hand, an unscrupulous prosecutor and forensic analyst can also exploit those expectations. DNA analysis—which was developed within the scientific community—has shown us that forensic analysis—which was developed largely in the law enforcement community, and is often practiced without scientific standards like peer review and blind testing—is deeply flawed. We now know that bite mark analysis, blood spatter analysis, ballistics analysis, hair and carpet fiber analysis, and even fingerprinting have routinely been presented to juries with assertions of certainty unbacked by any real science or empirical data.

Another recurring theme you’ll also find here is the problem with the way incentives are structured within the criminal justice system. From cops, to prosecutors, to judges, to the effects of our criminal laws themselves, we too often encourage and reward the wrong behavior. In addition to all of that, other topics you’ll likely read about here include asset forfeiture, over-criminalization, prosecutorial misconduct, policing strategies and tactics, prisons, motorist issues, sex crimes, checkpoints, zoning laws, eminent domain abuses, TSA, free speech, and the 4th Amendment. I’m sure I’ve left something out.

I would also point out that this blog is in The Post’s opinion section. I consider myself an opinion journalist. I try to be fair and accurate in my reporting, but I do come at these issues from a perspective, which I make no attempt to hide. I don’t claim to be objective, nor do I strive for objectivity. As you might guess from my work history, I’m a libertarian, and that outlook colors and motivates my work. I also thinks it helps me find stories where others might overlook them—I probably look at our criminal justice system, its players, and its institutions with less reverence and bit more skepticism than most.

But my ultimate goals as a journalist are to inform and persuade, and a big part of that is retaining credibility with readers. So while I have my own biases, I also try to present opposing viewpoints fairly, charitably, and address only the most convincing arguments of those who disagree with me. I’m sure I don’t always succeed, here. We’re all susceptible to confirmation bias. So one thing I plan to do to keep myself honest on this blog is to invite police, prosecutors, policymakers, and pundits who see things differently than I do to guest-post critiques of my work from time to time. I’m still working out exactly how this will work and how often it will happen, but right now I’m leaning toward making it a monthly feature.

In addition, it won’t be all heavy stuff here. A few years ago, I decided that a decade was too long for anyone to live in Washington, D.C. (with all due respect to my new colleagues, it was probably too long by about nine years). So on something of a whim, I picked up and moved to Nashville. I like it here. I’ve described the difference between the two cities this way: People move to Washington because they see themselves becoming president someday. People move to Nashville because they see themselves opening for Willie Nelson someday. I find the latter to be a much nobler ambition.

Shortly after I moved here, I started a little side blog called “Nashville Byline” (yes, it’s a pun on the Bob Dylan album. I’m also fond of bad puns). My aim was to explore Nashville music and culture, and to occasionally write about something other than wrongful convictions and mistaken police raids. The Nashville blog continued when I moved to Huffington Post, and it will continue here at The Washington Post. On Fridays, I’ll put up a post or two about my adopted hometown. Topics might include profiles of interesting people, interviews, profiles of local landmarks and institutions, or pieces about other aspects of history or culture. The Nashville blog also spun off a series called “Songs From My Couch.” Somehow, I’ve been able to convince local artists from Nashville’s wonderfully talented and diverse music scene (there’s much more here than country music!) to come play 3-4 song acoustic sets in my living room. Some friends and I record it all, then post it online. So that will continue here at The Post, too.

Finally, I do a little amateur photography. And I’m a dog person. So I’ll post a photo from time to time. And I’ll probably continue the “Sunday Evening Dog Blogging” tradition I started over at my personal blog. I’ll occasionally need a break from writing about dog shootings, cavity searches, and beatings. And you’ll occasionally need a break from reading about them.

I think that about covers it. So welcome! You’ll be able to find future posts on my bio page here. If you have tips, leads, or comments or criticisms that you don’t want to leave in the comments section, please feel free to email me. I’m delighted that The Post has offered me this opportunity. I hope to earn my way into your daily routine.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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