Some Year-end Reading on Prison Reform, Prisoners’ Rights, and Criminal Justice
Hi all – I will have the blog up and running again after the new year, but in the meantime, I wanted to highlight some valuable reading on prison law and policy issues from the past year. This isn’t a comprehensive best-of list since I’m sure I missed some good reads during my fall hiatus from prison blogging, just a quick round-up of some of the most important prison-related reads for me in 2011. Perhaps they will be useful reads for you as well. And please do add your own suggestions in the comments!
- Reason‘s criminal justice issue: A stellar line-up of articles on prosecutorial misconduct, alternatives to jailing juveniles, the drug war, and more from the libertarian magazine.
- Daedalus‘s mass incarceration issue: OK, this is actually from 2010 but if you are of a more academic bent, this special issue of the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is effectively a short one-volume anthology of the leading scholarship on America’s mass incarceration crisis.
- Brown v. Plata: In this year’s blockbuster prison law decision, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower federal court’s order that California must reduce the level of overcrowding in its state prisons from almost 200% of design capacity down to 137.5% of design capacity. The Court affirmed the lower court’s findings that the severe overcrowding in California’s prisons made it impossible to provide basic medical and mental health care to prisoners, thus causing California to systematically violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. If you didn’t get a chance to read the full opinions back in May, I recommend taking a look.
- “‘Realigning’ Criminal Justice in California” by Elliott Currie: Partly in response to Plata, California embarked this year upon a “realignment” of its criminal justice system that shifts responsibility for punishing low-level criminal offenders down to the county level. (Many news outlets have misleadingly described the realignment law as transferring state prisoners to county jails, which isn’t quite what’s happening. Rather, as of October 1, individuals convicted of certain state crimes are now punished at the county level — whether through a county jail term or whatever alternatives to incarceration the county comes up with.) The law is complex, and it’s too soon to start measuring its effects, which in any case will vary dramatically by county. There’s been lots of local reporting on the law’s effects in the California press, but unfortunately much of it has been misleading, fear-mongering, or incomplete. This article by UC-Irvine criminologist Elliott Currie does the best job of any single article I’ve seen of providing a brief but balanced overview of realignment’s pitfalls and possibilities.
- “Creating the Permanent Prisoner,” by Sharon Dolovich: Only a tiny percentage of prisoners are serving LWOP (life-without-parole) terms. But Dolovich, a UCLA law professor, argues that LWOP is simply the most extreme expression of the general motivating aim behind America’s criminal justice policies: to exclude prisoners permanently from society. She argues for abandoning “the implicit assumption that individuals who have been subject to criminal punishment have thereby forfeited their status as fellow citizens and fellow human beings.”
- “When Felons Were Human,” by Rebecca McLennan: This essay can be usefully read alongside Dolovich’s article. McLennan, a Berkeley history professor, traces the origins of the idea, which Dolovich sees as central to today’s American criminal justice system, that felons forfeit their human rights. McLennan reminds us that “Americans haven’t always perceived prisoners and convicts as exceptional categories of human or even an exceptional category of citizen, undeserving of most or all rights.”
- “Why Mass Incarceration Matters,” by Heather Ann Thompson: This article in the Journal of American History came out in 2010, but I got to it in early 2011, so I’ll include it here. Thompson, a historian, argues that we need to incorporate mass incarceration into our understanding of post-World War II deindustrialization and urban decline. She also calls for revising the received narrative that mass incarceration was an understandable response to the high crime rates of the 1960s. If you can’t track down the journal, Thompson also recorded a podcast that’s worth a listen, which I wrote about here.
- The Toughest Beat, by Josh Page: The first thorough study of the rise and political clout of the California prison guards’ union, valuable not just for understanding the broken politics of criminal justice in California but also a useful entrant into the national discussion over public sector unions more generally.
- “Our ‘Broken System’ of Criminal Justice,” by John Paul Stevens: The former Supreme Court justice reviews the late Harvard law professor William Stuntz’s book, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice (which is also worth a read). Stevens takes issue with some of Stuntz’s specific claims, but praises the book for its clear account of “the twin problems that pervade American criminal justice today—its overall severity and its disparate treatment of African-Americans.”
- “Federal Judges uphold Maryland law ending prison-based gerrymandering,” at the Prisoners of the Census blog: In this redistricting year, the Prison Policy Initiative continues its noble quest to eliminate prison-based gerrymandering, which distorts electoral districts around the country. This article will introduce you to some of the issues involved, but the entire blog is worth a bookmark.
- “Prison Rape and the Government,” by David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow: One of several entries in Kaiser and Stannow’s pathbreaking series of New York Review of Books articles exposing the scandal of prison rape and explaining how we could better protect those in government detention.