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What Media Focus on Rap Sheets Says About Justice System Failure

After six people were shot and killed outside a bar in Sacramento this month, journalists and commentators delved into the histories of two brothers arrested in connection with the shootout.

Both men had several prior convictions, and the coverage of their rap sheets was swiftly seized upon by midterm election hopefuls and conservative commentators to argue for harsher punishments and increased policing.

The coverage was the latest chapter in a long playbook, where the rap sheets of shoplifting, assault or shooting suspects are held up as evidence of continued failure, both from individuals and liberal officials who push for criminal justice reform.

Law Prof. John Pfaff of Fordham University says rap sheets say a lot about shortcomings in the criminal legal system, from policing through incarceration and re-entry.

The Guardian spoke with Pfaff about the role of rap sheets in news coverage. Not all the people and reporters who bring up criminal histories do so cynically, he says. But many, especially police unions and law and order politicians, use them as an excuse to give up and stop working with entire communities.

“When someone keeps coming in and out, in and out, isn’t that a sign perhaps that we’re failing?” he asks.

Pfaff notes "a profound asymmetry in how we hear about rap sheets. Only when someone does something wrong do we call up that history. And after someone is identified as a suspect it’s easy to look up that person’s history and see if there’s a plausible connection between the history and the subsequent crime. We never see the cases of the people who have long sheets and stay on the right path.

There are challenges to telling the story of someone who is released and instead of being locked up again gets the treatment they need and their life back on track, Pfaff says. Defense attorneys cannot share that information in the same way police and district attorneys can, unless the person is willing to do that, and who wants to be the poster child for justice reform success?, he asks. If you’ve gotten your life back on track you want that arrest to just go away.

A defendant's history of arrests, charges and convictions can provide a better sense of what works, Pfaff says. Often, things are quite expensive. The cost of prison is pretty low compared to things like cognitive behavioral therapy and drug treatment, which require much more intensive one-on-one interactions with people.