Kyung Jin Lee


Kyung Jin Lee is a criminal justice reporter for KALW News. Her stories have taken her through the trails of the Golden Gate Park to the streets of Occupy Oakland and the suburban backroads of Castro Valley.

Kyung Jin is also a general assignment contributor for KQED News. Her work has been featured on San Francisco Public Press and the East Bay Express. She holds a M.S. degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.  

Kyung Jin Lee

Sixty-eight-year-old Oscar James stands on a hill overlooking the old Hunters Point Shipyard. He points out a street that’s now closed off by a chain-link fence. That’s where his family lived on a street once called Navy Road. There’s a striking view of the bay side of the peninsula.

“All that dirt, see it behind the lab, the road?” he asks. “From that road all the way back used to be water.”

When we think of prison, most of us don’t think of it as a place where people go to get an education or to learn how to express themselves. But the arts have been part of the California prison system since 1977. Even though state funding for these programs was completely cut in 2003, nonprofits have kept some of the programs alive. One of those programs is Brothers in Pen--a creative writing class for San Quentin inmates, taught by Zoe Mullery.

Kyung Jin Lee / KALW

After years of struggle, the Oakland Police Department is finally getting some positive news. Crime rates are down in all major categories, including murder, robberies, and burglaries. And they’re getting closer than ever to meeting federally mandated reforms from more than a decade ago.

Daniel Arauz via Flickr

More than 2 million children across the country have at least one parent behind bars. Sixteen-year-old Kmani Baxter is one of them.

“It didn’t dawn on me that it had been 13 years since I seen him,” says Baxter. “I ain’t hug my dad since I was three or four. I haven’t touched my dad since I was four years old.”

Between classes, the five-minute passing periods at Skyline High are a little chaotic. Students are abuzz. Teachers, counselors and guards herd the teens to their classes.

Kyung Jin Lee / KALW

On a breezy summer day at San Quentin State Prison, inmate Paul Stauffer reads his writing to a live audience.

“My shoulders brush the sides of the wall and bunk as I pace the nine feet of my cell, between the sink and door. A scream echoed silently from my tortured soul, as hopeless dreams of a once meaningful life, floated endlessly across my mind…” he reads.

Creative self expression is a proven force for change in prisons. Inmates in this creative writing class, and classes like it, are less likely to commit crimes when they’re released.

Flickr user: Waponi

When you fill out a job application, you expect to answer some basic questions. Things like your employment and education history, and relevant skills to the job. And in many cases, you also have to check a box to declare whether you’ve ever been convicted of a crime.

In the city of Richmond, though, that last one is no longer fair game. It hasn’t been for a couple of years, since the city passed an ordinance called “ban the box,” forbidding government employees from asking job applicants about their criminal histories.

More than 50 cities and counties, as well as 10 states, have enacted some form of “ban the box” laws. That includes California.

Kyung Jin Lee

Beyond Emancipation

It’s audition day for Beyond Idol. Contestants pace around a large waiting area at Laney College, practicing softly to themselves as they wait for their turn.

This is a contest for Alameda County’s foster and probation youth, designed to showcase their talent and boost their self-confidence. Categories include original poetry, singing and rapping. There are definitely jitters in the room as each contestant goes before a panel of five judges. But the judges are kind in their feedback, like Judge Ralph Hall.

Oakland Police Department

Oakland Police Captain Ricardo Orozco says he’s living his dream of being a cop.

“Ever since I was a small boy, the show that I always liked to watch was Adam 12,” he says, referring to a TV show featuring LAPD officers.

These days, living the dream means managing a cadre of officers in the central part of Oakland. As of June, the city is broken up into five regions, each led by an area commander. A 26-year veteran of the force, Orozco heads Area 3, which includes some of the city’s most expensive zip codes, as well as some of its lower-income ones.

Kyung Jin Lee

West Oakland’s Alex Miller-Cole has decided that he can’t depend on the police for help.

“Mead Avenue was the second worst street in all of Oakland,” he says. “All the neighbors have been mulching. We planted 75 trees. Now it’s the cleanest street ever. Nothing happens here now.”

Under CC license from Flickr user bikesniffer

Just a few weeks ago, 12 people were shot and three killed within a 24-hour period  in Oakland. It’s a snapshot of a difficult reality that some residents are facing there - which includes robberies being up 30 percent from this time last year. Even in traditionally safer neighborhoods like Rockridge, residents are scared to go out at night.

Kyung Jin Lee

Last year, activists and residents took over an abandoned library at 1449 Miller Avenue in East Oakland. They set out books, planted vegetables, and declared it the “People’s Library.” But technically, their project was illegal, and no one was sure what would ultimately happen to their reclaimed space.

Peter Merts

Earlier this month, students in Zoe Mullery’s creative writing class for San Quentin inmates held a reading of their work at the prison. The public was invited to the reading, and one of the audience members asked the inmates if they thought going to prison was the only way they could have changed their lives for the better.

Kyung Jin Lee


Over the past few days, protesters on both sides of the Bay have joined thousands nationally in expressing outrage over George Zimmerman’s acquittal in Florida. Over the weekend, more than 500 people gathered at Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza.

Under CC license from Flickr user allaboutgeorge

The top brass of the Oakland Police department looks a lot different than it did a month ago. In just one week in May, two police chiefs resigned: former chief Howard Jordan, then his successor, Anthony Toribio.

The departures followed several highly critical reports: one by an independent consultant, the other by the department’s court-appointed overseer. Both find that years after the landmark police abuse scandal known as the Riders case, the department is still struggling with leadership, accountability, and transparency.

Flickr user katastrophik

A couple of years ago, Sonny Le and his five-year-old son were approaching their front gate in Oakland’s Glenview neighborhood after school when Le saw two men running towards them.

“One was trying to go behind us – the maneuver trying to corral your prey, basically,” he says. “The other one started coming right at me, at us. He put his hoodie on. It was like, OK, these kids gonna rob us.”

Mariel Waloff

Residents in the city of Richmond are reeling from a recent shooting spree, including the murder of a 19-year-old. The city has had four homicides so far this year – all committed in public, all during the day. And there have been other daytime shootings. They’ve shocked city residents – because crimes like that are no longer the norm.

KALW’s criminal justice reporter Kyung-Jin Lee joined Holly Kernan in studio to talk about the crime drop in Richmond – and what other cities can learn from Richmond’s approach.

Courtesy of Flickr user Henderson Images

It may be hard to believe, but many residents of the city of Richmond now talk about rampant gun violence there as a thing of the past. Less than a decade ago, the city experienced the chaos of a violent crime wave. There were 29 murders in 2002, and that number rose to 47 in 2007 and 2009. For a city its size – just over 100,000 people – that was almost ten times the national average.

Kyung-Jin Lee

One hundred and thirty-one people were murdered in Oakland last year – that’s the highest number since 2006. Other crime is up too, but the number of officers is down. So is police response time.

The word drone may conjure up images of remote-controlled planes firing missiles and killing terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But in the US, police departments are seeking the same technology to save lives.

Alameda County’s sheriff has expressed interest in adding the unmanned aerial system to his public safety arsenal, but civil liberty activists are blasting the idea as a further erosion of privacy and an abuse of power.

Kyung-Jin Lee

In California, last week’s vote was in many ways a referendum on our criminal justice system. Voters rejected Proposition 34, and so the state’s death penalty will remain in place. But Californians also amended the so-called three strikes law, so that nonviolent offenders are less likely to spend their whole lives in prison. That second vote suggests that voters may be starting to think more about rehabilitation than punishment.  

Kyung-Jin Lee

Walk along commercial corridors like Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and you’ll see a kaleidoscope of color and activity: stores and street vendors, tourists, hippies and the homeless.

Kyung-Jin Lee

Book lending and community gardening continues in front of an abandoned library in Oakland’s San Antonio district despite a police raid earlier this month. The historic building, a gift from Andrew Carnegie to the city back in 1918, was a branch library until 1976. Two other ventures have come and gone, but the building’s been vacant since 2001. The city says it’s not safe to use.

The blighted property has since attracted drug use, prostitution, and violence. So when activists moved in to reclaim it, local residents enthusiastically joined the effort.

Kyung Jin Lee

Hayward, San Jose, and Fremont joined more than 100 other cities across the country Thursday night to commemorate the Sikh temple killings in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Organizers say the idea was for all the temples to shine their lights collectively in a show of strength. 

Around 1,000 people came to support the victims and connect with their community. The candlelight vigil on the shores of Lake Elizabeth brought people out fropm all walks of the Sikh community – young professionals, monolingual immigrants and multi-generational families. 

Kyung Jin Lee

When the Oakland Police Department put out a call for new recruits earlier this year, more than 2,000 people applied – mostly from outside of Oakland. The applicants live in cities in the outer East Bay and in San Francisco, but they also hail from as far away as Illinois and Florida.

With a Presidential election looming, the issue of the day is still the economy. California has the third highest unemployment rate in the nation, and that just counts people who are actively looking for work. It doesn’t include those who’ve been looking longer than four weeks, or the folks who are so discouraged that they’ve given up altogether.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user allan.rojas

Law enforcement agencies across the country have policies protecting people of color from being racially profiled.

If you’ve lived in San Francisco long enough, you might have noticed that there are fewer yellow school buses crisscrossing the city. State budget cuts have forced the school district to cut its bus services to 98 percent of high school students. Only five middle schools still get busing. Even elementary schools have been losing service. And deeper cuts are promised for next year.