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What Serial taught Sarah Koenig about criminal justice

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It’s one thing to study criminal justice empirically, as many academics do, but something else entirely to be embedded within the system for an entire year. That’s exactly what Sarah Koenig and her team on the Serial podcast.

Koenig, executive director of the investigative journalism podcast, visited Penn State earlier this spring for a conversation about criminal justice with McCourtney Institute for Democracy Director Michael Berkman. A recording of the discussion is now available on the Democracy Works podcast, produced by the McCourtney Institute and WPSU.

The Serial team spent a year observing trials, hearings and other proceedings in Cleveland’s Justice Center Complex, which includes a courthouse and a jail. Along the way, they interviewed judges, prosecutors, defendants, inmates and others who find themselves entwined in the criminal justice system.

Throughout the series, Koenig returns to the fact that it’s difficult to obtain data about what methods of policing, sentencing and other aspects of criminal justice are most effective. The lack of data also surfaced in the conversation with Berkman.

“Part of the hugely frustrating thing we saw in Ohio, but I think this is again true in lots of parts of the country, there's no data, we don't keep data on this stuff,” Koenig said. “Nobody is tracking outcome for when is probation in our jurisdiction proving effective? When are people starting to slide off and violate more and more?”

Koenig and Berkman also discussed where college students should focus their attention if they want to move the needle on criminal justice reform.

“If you're asking where you can make a difference, boy, wouldn't it be fantastic to have the smartest, most compassionate, most energetic brains be working on juvenile crime,” Koenig said.

Koenig’s event was co-sponsored by the Rock Ethics Institute and the Criminal Justice Research Center, both in the College of the Liberal Arts. It was part of a conference on race and criminal justice organized by Allison Harris, assistant professor of political science.

For more information about Serial, visit Listen to the Democracy Works podcast at or subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.

Last Updated June 21, 2019