The Asian American Journalists Association announced this week that two ProProPublica projects – one in collaboration with WBUR and the other with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, a participating newsroom in the Local Reporting Network – won three Journalism Excellence Awards.
“Massachusetts Police Can Easily Seize Your Money. The DA of One County Makes It Nearly Impossible to Get It Back,” a collaboration between ProPublica and WBUR, is a winner in the Investigative Reporting category. In Massachusetts, under a system called civil asset forfeiture, police and prosecutors hold on to seized money or property that they suspect is part of a drug crime, even when people are not charged with a crime. WBUR reporters Saurabh Datar and Shannon Dooling examined this controversial practice and how it is often people with low incomes who are most affected. WBUR investigations editor Christine Willmsen and senior investigative reporter Beth Healy also contributed to the investigation.
The reporting team took an in-depth look into how civil asset forfeiture plays out in Worcester County, which ranks among the top counties for forfeitures in the state. An examination of all forfeitures filed in the county in 2018 found that of hundreds of incidents, nearly 1 in 4 had no accompanying drug conviction or criminal drug case filing. And that figure is likely conservative; an additional 9% of seizures had no publicly available court records.
The investigation also found that Worcester County District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. regularly stockpiled seized money, including from people not charged with a crime. His office held onto the money for years, and sometimes decades, before notifying people of their right to try and get their cash back. Among other findings in the monthslong investigation, in the 2019 fiscal year, 84% of forfeiture cases in Worcester County were decided by default in favor of the district attorney.
Following the investigation, Massachusetts lawmakers and criminal justice advocates called for changes to the state’s civil asset forfeiture system. The state Senate also passed a forfeiture reform bill this month, raising the bar prosecutors must meet to keep seized property.
“Promised Land,” by ProPublica and the Star-Advertiser, is a winner in the Investigative Reporting category and the Pacific Islander Reporting category. Co-reported by the Star-Advertiser’s Rob Perez and ProPublica’s Agnel Philip, the series exposed the decadeslong failure of the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to return Native Hawaiians to ancestral lands.
In 2020, the investigation revealed a number of structural shortcomings that contributed to the state’s failure to meet a crushing demand for housing. A first-of-its-kind analysis by the news organizations of department data showed the housing program has benefited those with the means and knowledge to navigate the complex homesteading system while leaving behind much of the Native Hawaiian community it was primarily meant to help. Today, more than 28,700 Native Hawaiians sit on an ever-growing waitlist. More than 2,000 people have died while waiting, according to the analysis.
The analysis also showed that, at the rate DHHL had been developing lots for the previous quarter century, it would need 182 more years to get everyone off the waitlist as it stood in 2020.
In response to the coverage, DHHL officials acknowledged that bold action was needed to deliver on the department’s main mission, and they pressed for more funding. In turn, legislative leaders prioritized the homesteading program this year. It was a top issue for House Speaker Scott Saiki, who cited the Star-Advertiser and ProPublica’s reporting as a major factor in advancing legislation that appropriated $600 million to the program.
With the passage of the measure, Native leaders, who are distrustful of the state department, are developing a plan on how to spend the single largest injection of funds in the history of the century-old initiative.
See a list of all AAJA Journalism Excellence Awards winners.