Outstanding Academic Titles 2020: Law & Incarceration in the US

This week's sneak peek from our 2020 Outstanding Academic Titles list: books about US law and incarceration.

This week’s sneak peek from our 2020 Outstanding Academic Titles list: books about US law and incarceration.

1. American justice 2019: the Roberts Court arrives
Stern, Mark Joseph. Pennsylvania, 2019

Within three months of taking office, Donald Trump kept his promise to supporters by appointing conservative Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. A year later, Trump nominated conservative Brett Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. After a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and a party-line vote in the Senate, Kavanaugh was confirmed. His appointment insured that there will be a conservative balance of five justices for years. Stern (who covers the courts and the law for Slate) describes the impact that a conservative majority could have on cases before the Supreme Court. In making his argument, Stern reviews and comments on nine important cases that were heard in the 2018–19 session. He explains why Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, will sometimes break with the conservative majority and move toward the Left. Stern also suggests that precedents may be wiped out.
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2. Incarcerated stories: indigenous women migrants and violence in the settler-capitalist state
Speed, Shannon. North Carolina, 2019

This bold, provocative, and very timely book from Speed (Univ. of California, Los Angeles) focuses on the experiences of indigenous women from Honduras, Guatemala, and southern Mexico who annually undertake the long, dangerous trek to the US border and beyond, fleeing poverty, violence, and repression. Speed talked with women who had been incarcerated in immigration detention facilities along the US border to learn and share their stories. As the author explains, the experiences of indigenous women migrants are more difficult and dangerous, from start to finish, than that of other migrants. Speed uses the stories she gathered to construct a broader and more intriguing argument about the structures of violence in which the boundaries between state and criminal are blurred. Within this framework criminal gangs in Honduras and Guatemala, corrupt officials and drug cartels in Mexico, and immigration authorities in the US all play their part in exploiting the special vulnerabilities of the indigenous women migrants under discussion. View on Amazon

3. Baby jails: the fight to end the incarceration of refugee children in America
Schrag, Philip G. California, 2020

Schrag’s book is a must read for anyone interested in the legal and political history of asylum seekers, from the Reagan to the Trump administrations. The book is arranged chronologically, and in the first three chapters Schrag (public interest law, Georgetown Univ.) introduces the 1985 Flores Settlement, which set detention standards for unaccompanied children and allowed for conditions for their release to a relative or sponsor and not necessarily to their biological parent. The chapters that follow focus on congressional actions; the transfer of the care of children in custody from INS to the Office of Refugee Resettlement; amendments to immigration laws; and establishment of the family detention facilities. They also trace the legal challenges couched in the premise that “there is simply no justification for imprisoning children” (p. 93). Embedded throughout are poignant and detailed stories of the struggle of individual activists, lawyers, immigration advocates, and judges. In the final chapter Schrag surveys the Trump Administration’s policies on detention of migrant children, policies that have led to family separation and babies in jails.
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4.Against capital punishment
Yost, Benjamin S. Oxford, 2019

Yost (philosophy, Providence College) has written a brilliant analysis of philosophical arguments for and against the death penalty. Surveying hundreds of scholarly articles and works about capital punishment, the author carefully documents the inadequacies of pro–death penalty reasoning used by philosophers from Immanuel Kant to the present. Yost covers political theories, philosophical arguments, and legal justifications, surveying issues such as deterrence, irrevocability, cost/benefit balance, inadequacy of attorneys, and the inherent fallibility of the American criminal justice system. Most important, he identifies a serious paradigm shift toward abolition of the death penalty based on three notions: the justice system inevitably makes mistakes; William Blackstone’s axiom (discussed in chapter 4) that it is better that ten guilty defendants escape rather than one innocent person suffer; and over-punishing those charged with criminal acts is worse than under-punishing them. The modern movement to abolish capital punishment seems destined to prevail as represented by the 2020 Colorado vote to abolish it, leaving fewer than 30 states still authorizing this rarely used punishment.
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5The death penalty , Opinions throughout history
Issitt, Micah L. Grey House, 2019

The death penalty is dwindling in the US, falling to 22 executions in 2019, the second lowest total in almost three decades. However, a reversal in the trend is possible, if not likely. This facet of American exceptionalism is parsed by Issit’s monumental source book, which breaks the drama of state-sanctioned death into 28 topics and a conclusion. Issit, an independent scholar, deserves commendation for his topical compendium, which cites Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern antecedents, but which preponderantly centers on how the death penalty has evolved in the US from Colonial days, through the founding of the republic, and up to the present. The author focuses the theme of each chapter on one or more edited documents, which are placed within the context of the time. Almost every chapter also includes a pertinent image or two, and some fascinating and little-discussed historical segments further help to illustrate the theme. Consider, for example, the debates between the abolitionist John O’Sullivan and the capital punishment advocate Reverend George Cheever in the 1840s, or the possibility of execution for military deserters.
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