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Zoë Towns and Rena Karefa-Johnson talk criminal justice, 2022 elections

<h6>Olivia Sanchez / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Olivia Sanchez / The Daily Princetonian

Attendees at a Dec. 9 event titled “Crime, Safety and Justice in the 2022 Elections” heard presentations and participated in discussions about how the perception of crime in the United States affected the 2022 midterm elections.

Guest speakers Zoë Towns and Rena Karefa-Johnson of FWD.us, a bipartisan group dedicated to immigration and criminal justice reform, explained why they thought the media treated the midterm elections as a referendum on crime and how the media influences U.S. public opinion on crime. 

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According to their website, FWD.us is a “bipartisan team of political campaigners spanning the fields of policy, advocacy, and technology.” Towns serves as the Vice President of Criminal Justice Reform and Karefa-Johnson is the Director of National Programming. 

Karefa-Johnson gave a presentation about the treatment of crime in the media that suggested that there has been a disproportional increase in mentions of crime as compared with the increase in actual crime. According to data compiled by FWD.us, there has been a five-percent increase in crime since 2020, but the surge in media coverage is not proportional. Starting in August, along with coverage of the 2022 midterm elections, mentions of crime skyrocketed across CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, with Fox seeing the largest increase, the presentation said. 

The presentation also offered suggestions on ways to reduce crime in lieu of policing. “Doubling down on more criminalization and incarceration does not make us safer,” Karefa-Johnson said. Medicaid expansion, youth summer job programs, supportive housing, neighborhood housing repairs, and gun violence intervention programs have all been effective, according to Karefa-Johnson.

Karefa-Johnson and Towns also emphasized that significant progress has been made to reduce incarceration rates. In fact, 37 states have experienced reductions in crime and incarceration. “The media has been increasingly hospitable to us. Still terrible. Totally, totally terrible, but really, comparably much better,” Towns said. 

Following the presentation, a conversation between attendees was held, where participants analyzed the outcomes of various elections in terms of the candidates’ records on incarceration reform. The participants concluded that liberal candidates who stand by their record of reducing incarceration have a better chance of winning than those who backpedal. According to FWD.us polling, there is wide bipartisan support for decreased policing and decreased incarceration. 

Finally, the conversation turned to the reason why the media loves to cover crime. According to one participant, crime is “simple: if it bleeds, it leads.” Although participants noted how the media has improved its coverage of crime in recent years, the increasing consolidation of media corporations raised concerns for some in the conversation, who expressed fear that local news outlets would lose their ability to tell original stories.

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Zoë Towns is a visiting research scholar at the University, and previously served as the Criminal Justice Project Director of the Pew Charitable Trust and as the inaugural director of the Bronx Freedom Fund, a nonprofit organization based in the South Bronx. 

Rena Karefa-Johnson is a policy expert and attorney who has worked to end pretrial detention across the country. Karefa-Johnson has an undergraduate degree in African American Studies from Yale University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.

The event was held in the Barfield-Johnson Seminar Room 201 in Morrison Hall, from 12–2 p.m. on Dec. 9. It was sponsored by the Humanities Council and the Department of African American Studies. 

Olivia Sanchez is a news contributor for the Prince.Please direct all corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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