For 23 years as a producer for “Dateline NBC,” Dan Slepian has been telling stories, diligently uncovering truths and seeking justice.
His investigative reporting has most notably helped lead to the release of several wrongfully convicted inmates while illuminating flaws and systemic failures that have occurred in the criminal justice system.
But it was after Slepian returned from a trip to Norway and Germany last fall, where he traveled as part of a delegation to tour prisons, that he felt compelled to pitch a series of programming ideas to the network.
“I was really inspired and motivated by what I saw,” Slepian said. “I came back and I went to Lester [Holt] and said we needed to do something really big.” Holt, an NBC News anchor, is the host of “Dateline.”
The result is “Justice for All,” a network-wide series that will feature a week of justice reform stories, with a special “Dateline” hour on Sept. 6. It highlights issues surrounding the impact of incarceration on families, prison sentencing and bail disparities, the growing number of women in prisons, hospice behind bars and more. The week will culminate in a town hall discussion on MSNBC on Sept. 8, with a panel that includes musician and reform advocate John Legend and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, among others.
The timing seemed right, Slepian explained, with the issues being given more and more scrutiny in recent months.
“We are in a genuine moment of reckoning when it comes to criminal justice reform,” he said. “Because of the publicity surrounding the First Step Act (signed into law in December 2018) and with celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Meek Mill speaking out—we are at a moment right now where people are paying attention and starting to understand that this is more than just about the people who are locked up, this is about society as a whole; why we are actually paying more tax dollars to make ourselves less safe.”
For the “Dateline” special, the Katonah resident and father of a high school student, spent two nights at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (also known as Angola) with Holt. Their purpose was to understand the prisoner experience firsthand with Holt “embedded” on the inside to report various stories.
Once called a “TV Gumshoe” by The New York Times, Slepian reflected on his thoughts regarding the current system of criminal justice in the United States, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world: approximately 2.2 million people are behind bars, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“I actually think we need to completely re-imagine prison and the criminal justice system because there are so many parts of it that don’t work,” he said, referring to stark statistics on the overrepresentation of African-American men in the prison system, the enormous number of people who are being held before they are convicted of a crime (but cannot afford bail) and data on rehabilitation and recidivism.
“Here is a fact: 95 percent of everybody in prison is coming home; they are going to be your neighbors, they are going to be your waiters, they are going to be walking down the street with you—how do you want those people to come home from prison?” he asked.
Comparing what he saw overseas to prison practices here in the US, he noted that corrections officers he met on his trip are trained both as police officers and in social work.
“They don’t even call inmates ‘inmates’; they call them residents, they call them by their names,” he said. “A good day for a corrections officer over there is to make sure somebody doesn’t come back to prison—where a good day for a corrections officer in this country is to go home safe.”
With a body of work in television (and a podcast) that has served to expose wrongdoings in cases of individuals prisoners, Slepian’s “Justice for All” aims to broadly explore the implications of the current state of mass incarceration.
“I want people to start to be educated—instead of having an emotional or gut reaction to what you think works in the criminal justice system—scratch the surface a little bit to find out what science tells us, what facts tell us,” he said.
Note: This writer and Dan Slepian are siblings.