Reporters' expertise makes hard subjects clear

PUBLIC EDITOR

Ideas

December 09, 2007|By PAUL MOORE | PAUL MOORE,PUBLIC EDITOR

Strong beat reporting is at the heart of quality newspaper journalism. The Sun's crime and criminal justice reporter, Julie Bykowicz, proved that last Sunday with a revealing article, "A `Back Door' Into Prison," which showed how prosecutors from Baltimore's state's attorney's office are using the court system in an innovative way to send lawbreakers free on probation back to prison - even after they are acquitted of a crime committed while on probation.

Many readers were surprised to learn that a person could face criminal penalties twice in connection with the same event. Many were happy that prosecutors were being innovative and aggressive in their efforts to keep potentially violent people off the street. Some wondered about the fairness of the practice, concerns that Bykowicz documented in a Dec. 4 follow-up article.

Critics often argue that the media too often report only on the surface of things and fail to explain how courts, the police, government and other public processes really work. There is a similar complaint about political reporting - that coverage of serious issues is overshadowed while reporters focus on more superficial horse-race aspects of politics.

It's not easy to show readers how things go right or wrong inside institutions and bureaucracies. Reporters need to see the processes, understand them and then explain what is happening and what it means - whether the issue is city spending practices or the court system. Beat reporters who are able to spend time with the people they cover are in the best position to produce these kinds of enterprise stories.

That's why Bykowicz's articles had real value for readers - because they increased the public's understanding of how the criminal justice system in Baltimore is operating.

Said reader Norris West: "Just wanted to say good story today. Very interesting - fascinating, really - that violation of probation is being used to keep violent people off the street. I don't think I ever knew that preponderance of evidence was the standard in those cases."

From Cynthia H. Jones: "Thanks for yesterday's article featuring the Collateral Division and the work of the attorneys in that unit. What I found especially helpful about the article was it took a seemingly complicated issue and thoroughly educated the public."

Samuel P. Caldwell Jr. wrote: "As an agent with the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation, it was pleasing to read that judges and prosecutors are using all of the tools available to sanction offenders that manage to finagle out of new charges while on probation."

From an online reader: "The policy walks the line, no doubt about it, but it does have the effect they want. Until it's declared unconstitutional, anything goes, as they say. I honestly did not think Baltimore's State's Attorney's Office had this much on the ball. I am pleasantly surprised."

Mark D. Jones was one of several readers who had a different point of view: "They should not be allowed to charge someone with a violation of probation if they are found not guilty. That means anyone could make up bogus information about someone on probation and they could go to jail even though they are innocent."

Bykowicz's Dec. 2 article came to life because she focused on the work and experiences of real people - a team of three prosecutors who have been pushing Violation of Probation (VOP) cases, and nine offenders returned to prison under this system.

Her Dec. 4 follow-up article told how family and friends publicly protested a scheduled probation violation hearing for Charles Carroll, who had recently been acquitted of rape charges but is now facing a return to prison because of VOP violations. The hearing, scheduled for last Tuesday, was later postponed until next month.

Bykowicz began the reporting for this story in November when she heard several prosecutors casually say that it was no big deal that they dropped charges against Carroll because they "could get him on a VOP anyway." Bykowicz recalled that the "no big deal" comment made her wonder how often this option was being used.

"As I did my reporting, I found that even though this doesn't happen all the time, it's happening more and more," Bykowicz said. "Defense attorneys also said they are being threatened with the procedure more, too, so clearly it was having an impact."

Bykowicz was concerned that the numerous legal terms and issues involved could make the article dense and difficult to read. "But my editor was great about helping me keep the story simple and straightforward, even though it dealt with lots of complicated topics such as how probation works, how suspended sentences work and standards of proof," she said.

In the end, Bykowicz was satisfied. "It was a good one to write. I got lots of e-mails from readers saying, `I didn't know they could do that.' So even though this wasn't breaking news or a `gotcha' investigation story, I feel like the public learned something new."

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