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A Criminal Justice Reform Documentary Watchlist

PBS NewsHour

Free Resources for Policy Debaters from PBS

The national policy debate topic for 2020 will be:

Resolved: The United States federal government should enact substantial criminal justice reform in the United States in one or more of the following: forensic science, policing, sentencing.

With a 59.6% vote in January, speech & debate organizations voted for Criminal Justice to be the policy debate resolution for all of 2020. Since then, the resolution has become more urgent and timely.

While you stay home this summer and prep for the upcoming season, these PBS NewsHour documentaries are a great place to start. Use your knowledge to enter the Star Tribune & Minnesota Urban Debate League’s Youth Criminal Justice Essay, Audio, & Video Contest before August 16th. Note: Documentary summaries from PBS.


Forensic Stock Image: PBS
Courtesy of PBS

Forensic Science Reform:

  • Forensic TestimonyThe Real CSI (2012) – How reliable is the science behind forensics? A FRONTLINE investigation finds serious flaws in some of the best-known tools of forensic science and wide inconsistencies in how forensic evidence is presented in the courtroom.
  • Arson Evidence: The Child Cases (2011) – An investigation by NPR, ProPublica and “Frontline” into more than 20 wrongful conviction cases involving faulty forensics in accidental child deaths.
  • Arson Evidence: Death By Fire (2010) – Did Texas execute an innocent man? In 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted for the arson deaths of his three young children. With unique access to those closest to the case, FRONTLINE examines the Willingham conviction in light of new science that raises doubts about whether the fire at the center of the case was really arson at all.
  • Confession Evidence“The Confessions” (2010) – An award-winning documentary on the case of the “Norfolk Four” – Navy sailors convicted of a murder they didn’t commit after giving false confessions under pressure.

Bonus: Check out The Innocence Files (2020) on Netflix, which examines bite mark analysis, eyewitness testimony, coerced confessions, and more.


jail bar shadow
Courtesy of PBS

Sentencing Reform: 

  • Public Defender System: Broken Justice (2020) – In 5 episodes, this NewsHour podcast dissects how the overwhelmed public defender system led to Ricky Kidd, a Missouri man, being sentenced to life without parole for a double homicide he says he didn’t commit.
  • Parole: Life On Parole (2017) – With unique access, go inside an effort in Connecticut to change the way parole works and reduce the number of people returning to prison. In collaboration with The New York Times, the film follows four former prisoners as they navigate the challenges of their first year on parole.
  • Juvenile Sentencing: Second Chance Kids (2017) – What happens when prisoners convicted of first degree murder as teenagers are given the chance to re-enter society? In Second Chance Kids, FRONTLINE examines the fight over the fate of some 2,000 individuals following a landmark 2012 Supreme Court ruling that found sentences of mandatory life without parole for juveniles unconstitutional. Drawing on the experiences of prosecutors, defenders, the families of the murder victims, and several offenders themselves, Second Chance Kids investigates the impact of the order to re-evaluate thousands of juvenile murder cases, and follows the cases of two of the first men in the country to be released in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling
  • Solitary Confinement: Last Days of Solitary (2017) – The U.S. is a world leader in solitary confinement. But in recent years, more than 30 states have begun to experiment with reforms aimed at reducing the use of solitary. Last Days of Solitary is a searing, two-hour documentary that offers American television’s most comprehensive exploration of this controversial practice — and goes inside the state of Maine’s ambitious attempt to decrease its use.

Bonus: Check out The Sentence on HBO, which discusses the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing:


policing stock image pbs

Policing Documentaries 

  • Policing the Police (2016) How do you change a troubled police department? A look inside the Newark Police Department in New Jersey, one of many troubled forces in America. Writer and historian Jelani Cobb examines allegations of police abuses and the challenge of fixing a broken relationship with the community.
  • Law & Disorder (2010) Behind the enduring images of heroic rescues undertaken by the New Orleans Police Department in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there is another story of law enforcement in crisis, even out of control. Law & Disorder, a year-long, ongoing collaboration among FRONTLINE, ProPublica and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, investigates charges that NOPD officers inappropriately used lethal force against New Orleans citizens and then tried to cover up their actions. [Explore more stories on the original website for Law & Disorder.]

Bonus: Check out Crime + Punishment on Hulu, which documents the history of an illegal ticketing quota in one police department.

Inspired? Share your ideas to reform the criminal justice system. Enter the Star Tribune & Minnesota Urban Debate League’s Youth Criminal Justice Essay, Audio, & Video Contest before August 16th.