I listen to a lot of true crime podcasts. I’m not really sure why—I’ve thought about it many times without coming to any definite conclusions. Regardless of the conscious or subconscious reasons, the true crime genre has become increasingly popular and mainstream in the past several years. That popularity has sparked a wave of ethical critiques of certain examples of the genre, and the genre as a whole, and how true crime media can be harmful both on a personal level to victims and survivors and on a societal level. I agree with a lot of these criticisms.
Yet, I keep listening. I’m not going to argue that I’m perfectly justified in doing so. But, whether by design or accident, a number of podcasts have helped me learn and grow a lot as a person, particularly in how I think about our policing, prison, and criminal justice systems.
I’ll give a caveat that I’ve never been a champion for these systems. Although I’m a white woman (the core demographic for true crime), and white women are often the group most prioritized and protected by police, I was raised by a single mom who was always skeptical of authority figures, including the cops. I also had enough negative experiences with the police as a teenager (nothing violent, but anxiety-provoking and markedly unhelpful) that I’ve never felt protected by law enforcement. So, maybe that has skewed which stories I find engaging and maybe the lessons I took away from them are different than the average listener.
Regardless, I’ve assembled this list of true crime podcasts that I feel are about as ethically produced as this genre can be, and have significantly helped me understand the reality of our institutions that promise “justice” and why they rarely, if ever, deliver. If you, or someone you know, has a podcast habit like mine, but still struggle to understand why many of your neighbors might want to defund, abolish, or significantly restructure our police and prison systems, give these a try.
Top recommendation other true crime listeners may have missed
Cincinnati Inquirer journalist Amber Hunt investigates the 1984 murder of Retha Welch in Kentucky. Hunt explores how to properly discuss a victim’s risk factors for violence without victim blaming, a likely wrongful conviction, the realities of life after exoneration, explicit police and prosecutorial conspiracy, and enlightening interviews with attorneys from the Kentucky Innocence Project.
On anti-Black racism in policing
An investigation into the case of Curtis Flowers, a Black man in Mississipi who was tried six times for the same crime and how his case eventually ends up at the US Supreme Court.
An investigation of the suspicious death of Billey Joe Johnson Jr., a teenage football star in Mississippi who ended up dead during a routine police traffic stop.
Slow Burn, Season 6, The L.A. Riots
The story of the riots that broke out after a jury acquitted the four LAPD officers filmed beating Rodney King in 1991. The case and the aftermath have obvious connections to our current experience in Minneapolis.
On anti-Indigenous racism in the U.S. and Canadian legal systems
Profiles Thunder Bay, Ontario, often called the most racist city in Canada, largely due to police and political corruption. Along with being located just across the border from many popular Minnesotan vacation spots, you might notice some other concerning commonalities with Minneapolis.
Stolen: The Search for Jermain
An investigation by Cree journalist Connie Walker into the disappearance of young Indigenous mother Jermain Charlo in Missoula, Montana.
Cherokee journalist Rebecca Nagle follows Supreme Court cases that have the capability of substantially changing Tribal rights in the U.S.
On the treatment of sexual assault and domestic abuse survivors
Journalist Justine van der Leun examines the case of Nikki Addimando, a domestic abuse victim who is currently incarcerated for killing her husband and abuser. She also explores the larger issue of criminalized abuse survivors and how our justice system doesn’t consider them victims.
The story of two sexual assault victims from different locations and generations who join together to try to get justice after discovering a connection between their experiences.
The story of Carrie Low, a rape victim in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, who is suing the Halifax Regional Police for repeatedly botching the investigation into her case.
Beginning with the story of a rape that the police refused to investigate, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting investigates the Louisville Police Department’s process for evaluating rape cases and why they are usually closed without any investigation.
Survivors tell their stories of coercive control and domestic abuse, most of which showcase the lack of support available for these victims from the legal system.
On the treatment of other vulnerable populations
What Happened to Holly Bartlett?
Investigative journalist Maggie Rahr joins with loved ones of Holly Bartlett, a blind woman who died under suspicious circumstances in 2010, to uncover what happened to her and whether assumptions about her blindness led the police to false conclusions.
Uncover: The Village, Seasons 1 and 2
Journalist Justin Ling investigates cases of murdered LGBTQ+ people that were not prioritized by Toronto police.
Reveal: Handcuffed and Unhoused
An excellent primer on the criminalization of homelessness and how police interactions with unhoused people reinforce poverty and trauma.
How and why our system is not built for rehabilitation or crime prevention
Investigates the murder of Jacob Wetterling in Minnesota and his mother, Patty Wetterling’s, evolving activism.
You’re Wrong About: Sex Offenders
An overview of the systems and laws we have created to prevent sex crimes and how many have only compounded the problem.
You’re Wrong About: The Victim’s Rights Movement
An analysis of the failings of laws that are supposed to protect crime victims.
Journalist Jason Moon follows the case of Josh, a young man facing a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence in federal prison for providing the drugs that led to her overdose death.
How abuses of the current policing and justice system go unchecked
A new California police transparency law reveals the details of internal investigations into officer misconduct.
Definitely the most enlightening season of Serial, imho, in which Sarah Koenig spends a year following and reporting on the most common and representative cases that come through Cleveland’s court house.
A New Hampshire reporter gets access to a “Laurie List,” a list of problem cops that are not supposed to testify in court.
Examines the cyclical journey of the Louisville, KY, police department from its public commitment in 2016 to become the poster child for police reform through the aftermath of the killing of Breonna Taylor in 2020.
On the dangers of copoganda
Examines the huge cultural and societal impact of cop shows, starting with the incredible popularity of COPS in 1989.
On prison conditions
Prisons are constitutionally required to provide health care to inmates, but very frequently fall short.
It probably goes without saying that all of these podcasts deal with incredibly troubling content in varying levels of detail. If any specific topic is extra sensitive for you, I recommend doing some research before listening. If you have notes on any of these, or your own recommendations, please leave them in the comments.