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Incredibly well researched and well-written, this book is eye-opening and is a must-read for anyone in the U.S who wants to understand the reasons behind emotion-based, tough-on-crime political rhetoric and policies with no basis in evidence. The book helps the reader to understand what led to mass incarceration in the United States and includes practical solutions to end it.
Rachel Barkow's description of the largely unchecked power of prosecutors and their strong lobby to maintain that power is maddening. The sheer quantity of criminal laws (4,000 on the federal level alone and 300,000 federal regulations subjecting violators to criminal penalties in addition to ever-expanding state laws) put all of us at risk.
This book gives a behind-the-scenes view of a system that operates largely behind closed doors and that has grown into a behemoth that now affects the majority of families. You or someone you care about may become a casualty of this system. Even if you're not directly affected, the cascade effect of criminalizing our nation is felt by every taxpayer, parent, employer, landlord, professional and business owner in America. The information in this book is important. Only through knowledge will we see change. Whether for advocacy for change on this important topic, or to be informed for purposes of self-protection, read this book!
The subtitle is a publisher's come-on. In fact it is the most comprehensive discussion of the failures in our cj system that we have. It asks for a much closer marriage of empirical expertise and public policy. Unfortunately, in a society susceptible to populist sound bites, "fear" and not "facts" are the predominant motivators.
Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration is a welcome addition to the books tackling the carceral state the United States has become. Rachel Elise Barkow has the personal experience that gives her credibility on both sides of the aisle and a clear, concise way of making her case. She organized Prisoners of Politics into three sections, the first explaining the problem and how we got here, the second explaining the forces that drove bad policy, and the third outlining reforms to lead us out of this mess.
The first section explaining how we got in this mess starts at the tendency to define crimes too broadly, an example being the streaker, the public urinator, the rapist, and the child molester all being listed as sex offenders. Then Barkow looks at the use of sentences that are too long. It's the likelihood of getting caught, not the length of the sentence, that is the primary deterrent and long sentences can be counter-productive, causing more crime in the long run. Then she looks at prison and how it fails to do much more than warehouse people, falling down on the job of rehabilitation and reentry. Fourth, she looks at the traditional checks on over-punishment, parole, clemency, and pardons, and how they have been eroded and nearly eliminated mostly by the outrage machine. The last chapter of Part One looks at the collateral damage of the carceral state on families and communities. This includes all the post-incarceration punishments levied on former felons like denying them occupational licensing, affordable housing, and food stamps.
In the second section, Brakow looks at two main forces leading us down the road to having more people locked up than China. The first is populist politics, the impulse to stoke fear and promise protection, the law-and-order tough-on-crime politics that sells. The second are the institutions that benefit from a system geared more toward retribution than crime control, the police, prosecutors, and prison guards, in particular.
In the last section, Barkow suggests important reforms including reining in the power of prosecutors, utilizing experts and objective data in setting policy and dragging the courts back to where they used to be on defendants' rights and cruel and unusual punishment.
Prisoners of Politics is well-organized and well-argued. It is also well-documented with seventy-four pages of endnotes. I love that very small superscript numbers were used for the reference marks so they were not too obtrusive and did not interrupt the flow of a paragraph. This is important when a single paragraph might have seven endnotes. When I wanted to check a note, I needed to pull the page close, but that is so much easier than having the text constantly broken and interrupted by overly obvious reference marks. It seems a small point, but it makes academic reading so much more readable.
I like that Barkow kept herself in the narrative. She served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission and clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia, she has a point of view informed by experience. She also brought a moral spirit to the text as an honest advocate for a more rational and more just system.
I also appreciate her honest assessment of what reforms are more likely and what the impediments are. The outrage industry is not going away and she makes a good case for how to limit its effects.
This is a smart book and I encourage people interested in criminal justice reform and over-incarceration to read it.
I received a copy of Prisoners of Politics from the publisher.
Prisoners of Politics is brilliant and should be required reading for anyone interested in criminal justice. Professor Barkow's focus on data and empirical evidence is refreshing and through this data she makes a compelling case for smart on crime reforms that could be embraced by conservatives and liberals alike. In essence, she provides a blueprint for the criminal justice reform movement and the changes that should be front and center of the movement. Barkow's prescription benefits from her expertise in administrative law and her time on the Sentencing Commission, and unlike many other scholars, she moves beyond the easy critique to propose actionable solutions.
We can only hope that policymakers and their constituencies take notice and enact the solutions so excellently laid out by Barkow.
This is a blueprint for a more compassionate and fiscally responsible criminal justice system. The United States has become the world's largest jailer. Rachael Barkow explains the process and the solution to this important public policy failure.