In case you missed it, PBS Independent Lens’ Emmy-winning documentary series and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Courier Journal launched a multimedia investigative series on Kentucky’s persistent criminal offense (PFO) laws. The series hopes to use the power of journalism and film to examine the past present and what’s to come for Kentucky’s PFO law. The law was originally drafted in 1974 (KRS 532.080) and allows prosecutors to pursue harsher sentences for those who have already been convicted of crimes.

Working with data and analysis from the nonpartisan Vera Institute of Justice, Mike Trautmann, News Director/Director of Investigations of The Courier Journal, and reporters Jonathan Bullington, Matt Mencarini and Chris Kenning investigate the intergenerational impact at term of these laws on Kentuckians. as well as the potential for reform and the growth of the prison population in the state.

The original series took months to develop. Collaborating with sources including people currently and formerly incarcerated has helped tell the stories of those affected by this law.

You can read the series if you’re a subscriber on the Courier Journal website or watch the short documentaries on YouTube.


Excerpt from a press release:

The reporting team worked closely with filmmakers including 10-time Emmy Award-winning Marlon Johnson and Louisville natives Imani Dennison and Evan Mascagni to identify criminal justice system experts and film participants. whose personal stories reflect the legacy of the PFO sentencing law. Films in the series include:

  • Evan Mascagni’s Persistent follows a formerly incarcerated man who strives to reform Kentucky’s Persistent Criminal Offender (PFO) sentencing law. As Marcus Jackson fights for change in the offices of state legislators, he confronts the intergenerational trauma inflicted on his family by a decades-old law. Political and systemic forces threaten to halt its surge toward justice on behalf of those convicted of nonviolent drug crimes.

  • Marlon Johnson’s state weight reveals a tight Kentucky family bearing the brunt of incarceration. As Ryan Troxler serves a 15-year sentence under the state’s Repeat Offenders Act (PFO) amid the pandemic, his loved ones are struggling to keep their bond as strong as ever. Outside of their inner circle, his case raises a tough question: Is there a connection between race and FOP prosecution decisions in Kentucky?

“Our goal at the Louisville Courier-Journal is to ethically and impartially investigate stories that impact Louisvillens, Kentuckians and the world at large,” said the news director/director of investigations. Mike Trautmann in the release. “The opportunity to deeply explore the history of Kentucky’s Persistent Criminal Offender Law with the help of INDEPENDENT LENS, incredible filmmakers, and groundbreaking data from the Vera Institute of Justice allowed us to provide a genuine about the real impact this law had on the state and its people.

“As someone born and raised in Kentucky, it’s been an absolute honor to help fellow Kentucky man Marcus Jackson tell the human stories behind the state’s persistent criminal offender law,” said the persistent filmmaker. Evan Mascagni in the same press release. “Families in Bluegrass State have experienced generational cycles of incarceration and trauma, and reforming this law will hopefully help the healing process for so many. Marcus’ tireless political reform work is certainly an uphill battle, but I hope our work together will help change the perception that so many people have of incarcerated people and also help lawmakers understand the importance of that question.

The personal stories of those affected are what give this story its weight and power. The story of Ryan Troxler for example.

“The Ryan Troxler story is the story of an African American man, who is currently serving a hefty 15-year sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. His conviction and sentencing by an all-white jury took place in Greenup County, Kentucky, where the black population is less than 1 percent; it’s a very common narrative across America,” Weight of the State filmmaker Marlon Johnson said in the release. “Thanks to my work with Ryan and his family, we hope to draw attention to the racial and economic disparities woven into the fabric of Kentucky’s criminal justice system through its use of persistent criminal laws.”

The series began January 22 on PBS television, February 3 on the Courier Journal website, and will be on the PBS app from February 21.

To learn more about Kentucky’s Persistent Criminal Offender Act and to participate in the civic conversation, the public is invited to share their feedback through this interactive tool.

Other INDEPENDENT LENS documentaries exploring the criminal justice system include Apart, which examines the impact of America’s war on drugs through three mothers trying to rebuild their lives after incarceration. Apart begins screening communities nationwide on January 22, 2022 and will premiere on PBS and the PBS Video app on February 21, 2022. For more information on Apart, please visit here.

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