Crime and punishment in the US

This week’s list features 2019 Outstanding Academic Titles about crime and punishment in the US.

1. Punishment without crime: how our massive misdemeanor system traps the innocent and makes America more unequal
Natapoff, Alexandra. Basic Books, 2018

Natapoff (UC Irvine) reveals the abusive nature of the approximately 13 million misdemeanors filed annually across the US against alleged jaywalkers, trespassers, parking-meter violators, unsafe drivers, cannabis users, and other petty offenders. Through compelling case studies and carefully researched data drawn from multiple sources, Natapoff demonstrates how the prosecution of misdemeanor cases often leads to innocent defendants pleading guilty, thereby potentially ruining opportunities for successful immigration status, meaningful employment, housing availability, and earning potential.
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2. Lethal state: a history of the death penalty in North Carolina
Kotch, Seth. North Carolina, 2019

Kotch (UNC at Chapel Hill) details the history and politics of capital punishment in North Carolina. Kotch examines the colonial underpinnings of the death penalty and the contemporary ethical and legal issues. The book is broken up into five chapters, each providing contextual inquiries into the history of capital punishment in North Carolina. The themes of the five sections entail justice, ethics, jurisprudence, activism, and revival. As Kotch discusses the history and the present, it is clear that he is dissecting ways in which the law, race, age, gender, and class all play a role in the distribution of the death penalty.
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3. Life imprisonment: a global human rights analysis
by Dirk van Zyl Smit and Catherine Appleton Harvard, 2019

Governments around the world are losing their appetite for capital punishment. Rapidly taking its place is life imprisonment. Life-sentenced prisoners worldwide grew from an estimated 261,000 in 2000 to an estimated 479,000 in 2014; 183 countries now allow its imposition. (Significantly, 80 percent of the world’s lifetime incarceration population is in the US.) Yet what life imprisonment signifies is not clear-cut. It can mean life without parole (“whole life”) or it can mean release within just a few years. Legal scholars Van Zyl Smit and Appleton (both, Univ. of Nottingham, UK) provide extraordinary insights into this pervasive development in criminal justice practice.
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4. Fight the power: African Americans and the long history of police brutality in New York City
Taylor, Clarence. New York University, 2019

Can police brutality be separated from the institution of policing? This question arises from Taylor’s important study, which provides nuanced context for concerns about how race and power intersect in New York City. This history of police brutality looks at violence and resistance on the parts of those who fought against it and those who were victimized: Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo. Taylor (history, Baruch College, CUNY) resurrects the stories of African American men and women whose experiences at the hands of the New York Police Department (NYPD) were calls to action. Sadly, the 2014 murder of Eric Garner had significant historical precedent. In this detailed study, Taylor draws attention to strategies Powell and the Nation of Islam used in the first half of the 20th century to frame the NYPD as an institution incapable of justly policing NYC’s black communities.
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5. Prisoners of politics: breaking the cycle of mass incarceration
Barkow, Rachel E. Belknap, Harvard, 2019

Prisoners of Politics explores the failures of the prison system in addressing public safety, the politics that reproduce these failures, and possible l structural changes to institutions that could alleviate these issues. After setting the background of what is known as “penal populism”—i.e., a scenario in which political entities take advantage of popular sentiment and compete with each other to be tough on crime in the hope of winning votes—Barkow advocates for a justice system that uses data and expertise and eschews popular conceptions of justice. Barkow has worked with sentencing commissions and other groups that engage in work on convictions, and she has written extensively on this topic.
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