Praises rang out last month when Congress —for the first time in decades — passed a criminal justice reform bill with promises to bring sweeping change to the criminal justice system. It’s a system that has long been criticized for its disproportionate effects on the Black community, chastised for it’s over policing of Black and Brown bodies, and condemned for the injustice it doles out time and time again to the very people it was “designed to protect.”
Of those are a host of men and women who have been unfairly sentenced, wrongfully convicted, and on too many occasions wrongly accused. People who Lester Holt now profiles in a series for Nightly News called “Justice For All.”
“I’m a journalist. Our mission is to shine a light in dark places and speak for the voiceless,” Holt shared with ESSENCE as his reasoning for starting the series. “Many people who are in the criminal justice system are finding themselves in dark places. They don’t get the attention, and they certainly don’t have a voice.”
The lead anchor for the most-watched evening newscast among the key news demographic, kicked off “Justice For All” earlier this month with an interview with Edward Yarbrough, attorney for Cyntoia Brown, just days after Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted the 30-year-old model inmate, executive clemency. Brown, who’s made headlines over the last year with celebrity endorsements from the likes of Rihanna, Drake, and LeBron James, is just one of the many incarcerated individuals whose story, Holt believes, deserves closer inspection.
“Her story is, you know, it’s an interesting one,” Holt admitted. “And she certainly doesn’t deny killing this man. But the circumstances, obviously, are one that gives us all pause. Mostly, the idea that someone could be locked away for more than 50 years, who was convicted as a teenager.”
Prior to the launch of the new series, Nightly News and Holt specifically, spent much of the last year taking a deeper dive into criminal justice reform and deconstructing what that looks like for everyday Americans. Last July, he brought the conversation to ESSENCE Fest, inviting Meek Mill and Remy Ma to join him on stage to discuss not only the issues faced during sentencing but the ways in which the system works to stifle the formerly incarcerated, following their release from prison.
“In spite of the good intentions, sometimes the system just doesn’t work,” the former Weekend Today co-host acknowledged. “And we’re seeing that more and more, and I think people are awakening to it now.”
Beyond the mental and emotional toll it takes on those who unjustifiably end up behind bars, “Justice For All,” explores the ways in which families go through the difficult and often debilitating process of supporting a loved one who is incarcerated.
Holt explained that the repercussions of unjust sentencing and the absence of rehabilitation pose a wider impact on our society, saying, “If the criminal justice system is not working at its optimum, then that opens up the door to a whole host of societal and social issues.”
Those include children being left behind and families being broken. It also leads to recidivism which the Bureau of Justice Statistics found effects 76.6% of inmates within five years of a release from state prison. The United States Sentencing Committee study drew similar conclusions, noting that 44.7% of federal prisoners are re-arrested after five years.
“There are people who generally want a chance and genuinely want to be rehabilitated, but they come on the outside and they don’t have a shot,” Holt stressed. “They can’t get a job, they can’t vote. In most cases, they are not fully functioning members of society. So, it’s a critical issue.”
The 2016 NABJ Journalist of the Year also emphasized that most stories involving wrongful imprisonment or unfair sentencing don’t make the news cycle like Cyntoia Brown or become a cultural moment like in the case of Meek Mill, but asserts that they are equally as important:
“There’s a lot of big stories out there, that are affecting our country on a daily basis. And they’re not necessarily part of the political back and forth. But, we need to be talking about them.