The movement for criminal justice reform suffered major blows in 2017—and the prospects don’t look much better in 2018, as the Trump-Sessions administration continues to push its punitive agenda.
If you’re a reformer, take heart. Long-term change is often accomplished through small steps, and informed by careful thought and research. Plenty of the latter was on offer last year from criminal justice scholars and observers whose books offered a stimulating framework for continuing the debate.
And if you think the current administration is on the right track, you might find it interesting to engage with the current criticism and the interpretation these books offer.
Either way, here are seven books (including one by a TV commentator) that may help you make sense of the evolving criminal justice landscape in the year to come. Crime Report writers have spoken to several of the authors over the year, and we’ve added links to their Q&As in case you want to know more.
TCR readers have also written in with their suggestions. See below.
Prosecutors as Agents of Change
In his book Locked In: the True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, Fordham University law professor John Pfaff challenges the popular narrative that mass incarceration is driven by War on Drugs-era policies that put non-violent drug offenders away for longer and longer periods. Pfaff shows that this story explains only a fraction of the increase in the US incarceration rate over the past few decades. He also introduces a new key character: the prosecutor. “Few people in the criminal justice system are as powerful, or as central to prison growth, as the prosecutor,” Pfaff writes. He also notes that, for all of their power, “prosecutors are almost completely ignored by reformers.”
That may change. In November, Philadelphia elected former civil rights attorney Larry Krasner as district attorney. Krasner, set to take office Jan. 2, will arguably be the most progressive DA in the nation, which is why the eyes of many reformers will be on Philadelphia in 2018. You can read Pfaff’s Q&A with The Crime Report’s David Krajicek here.
The End of Policing As We Know It?
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made clear that he doesn’t believe it’s the role of the Department of Justice to “manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” Without the federal government playing a supervisory role in holding police departments accountable in incidents of racism, corruption, and brutality, in 2018 reformers will need to find new ways to curb such behaviors. In The End of Policing, Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale offers a different solution to police brutality than consent decrees – disarming the police. Vitale takes the reader back to the origins of policing, and frames police as the entity that has a monopoly on the use of force in a democratic society. Considering that the legitimized use of force is what makes the police unique, Vitale challenges the reader to confront whether it makes sense to have police act as first responders to all incidents they currently respond to.
Is there a mental health crisis? An armed police officer is often called. Is a child misbehaving in school, even pre-school? An armed police officer is often called. Drug abuse? An armed police officer comes to investigate and make arrests. Vitale criticizes common suggested reforms that emphasize training and community relationship building, and offers alternatives that include disarming the police and added investment in social services. For a taste of his book, read his revealing Q&A with Isidoro Rodriguez of The Crime Report.
Enforcement of Codes in the Colony
In his book, A Colony in a Nation, Emmy Award-winning news anchor Chris Hayes combines analysis of current and historical events with voices from those in justice-impacted communities, and lays a framework of a double system (to invoke W.E.B Du Bois)—the colony and the nation—separated by the color line. One of the most fascinating points Hayes makes is about the culture of enforcing laws. He writes: “If you’re looking to make a community furious, then arbitrarily fiddle with enforcement norms, and see what happens.”
This was true in the time of John Hancock, and it is true today, in the enforcement of parking violations, housing code enforcement, property nuisance ordinances, and criminal laws. Our expectations of enforcement are too often driven by the color of our skin and the amount of money in our bank account, not the severity of the violation. In 2017, from Chicago to Jacksonville, black bicycle riders and pedestrians found themselves subjected to increased enforcement for minor violations. In 2018, these issues should be elevated in local elections all throughout the nation.
Understanding Mass Incarceration
There are many political questions surrounding the rise of mass incarceration. In Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Yale Law Professor James Forman Jr. reflects on his time as a public defender in Washington, D.C., and reflects on the realization that many people who promoted criminal justice policies that disproportionately harm black people are, in fact, also African American. In D.C., as is the case in other cities, black political power exists. There are and have been black prosecutors, public defenders, judges, mayors, police chiefs, and city council members; yet punitive politics that drive mass incarceration still prevail.
Forman walks the reader through the choices of political leaders in communities impacted by crime and drugs. Indeed, some black political leaders also bought into the War on Drugs rhetoric. With regards to black elected officials who view themselves as reformers, Forman views them as “defenders of the nonviolent-offender-only approach to reform that are sometimes silent about who is being left out.”
The Chokehold and Stop-and-Frisk
In 2018, we can except to see more cities pursue aggressive stop-and-frisk and pro-active policing tactics with the blessing of the Department of Justice and the White House. To understand and correctly frame the impact of these tactics, among others, one would benefit by reading Chokehold: Policing Black Men by Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler.
Butler uses the chokehold, which “justifies additional pressure on the body because the body does not come into compliance, but the body cannot come into compliance because of the vise grip that is on it,” as an analogy to the entire experience of black males in America in front of police. Employing both legal analysis and personal experience, Butler deconstructs justice system phrase-making which he argues obfuscates reality. He argues, for example, that “seize and search” is a more accurate description of the technique’s “serious intrusion on the sanctity of the person” than “stop-question-and-frisk.” If Hayes’ work was an homage to Du Bois’ double system of justice, Chokehold describes the process through which the double system is operationalized.
Tying It All Together
The collection of essays, Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment, edited by American University law professor Angela J. Davis centers police brutality around race. Starting with an essay from Bryan Stevenson on the history of policing black men from slavery to our time, every essay in Policing the Black Man dispels the myths of color blind justice in every step of the criminal justice system: policing, indictment process, prosecution, and in the courts.
Two essays on prosecutors, one authored by Davis herself and another by Wake Forest University law professor Ronald F. Wright, make the connection between the books of Forman and Pfaff. Together, the essays are a comprehensive review of prosecution, emphasizing the role of the prosecutor as “the most powerful official in the criminal justice system.” They shed light on the dearth of black prosecutors, question whether elections are actually a means for accountability, and explore the complex relationship between prosecutors and voters of color.
The Perils of Big Data
Trying to make sense of your computer glitches? So is the criminal justice system. As police, prosecutors and courts increasingly rely on computer analytics, so-called “big data” that captures and collates enormous amounts of information are being used in many cities to identify potential lawbreakers. But this form of predictive policing has also been criticized for its lack of transparency and potential for racial bias.
In his new book, The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement, Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia, argues that the criticisms are valid, and should generate a conversation about the use of new technologies before this form of policing becomes institutionalized. Ferguson explained his perspective in a recent Q&A with Julia Pagnamenta of The Crime Report.
From Our Readers
Since this article was posted, readers have offered additional suggestions for impactful books of 2017.
Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission by Barry Friedman
The War on Kids: How American Juvenile Justice Lost its Way by Cara Drinan
End of its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice by Brandon L. Garrett
and finally, Tell the Client’s Story: Mitigation in Criminal and Death Penalty Cases (editors: Edward C. Monahan and James J. Clark). In a recent review, Bryan Stevenson called this an “essential guide to help 21st Century criminal defense lawyers learn a skill that is just as important as mastering the rules of evidence, effective cross-examination or persuasive summation.”
Other suggestions? Please let us know!
Abraham Gutman is an Israeli economist and writer currently based in Philadelphia. His writing focuses on criminal justice and housing. He holds an MA in economics from Hunter College where he conducted research on stop-and-frisk. He currently works as a researcher at the Beasley School of Law at Temple University. His writing has appeared in Salon, The Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Philadelphia Magazine‚ among others. Readers’ comments are welcome. Follow him on Twitter @abgutman.