As we make new resolutions to be more productive in the new year, we've compiled a list of some of our favorite reads that inspire us to do what we do in the field of social justice and criminal justice.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Just Mercy tells the story of Bryan Stevenson as he worked as a attorney for people on death row in the South. Stevenson recalls visits with his clients and allows us to relive his experiences in a way that deeply personalizes the issues of race and injustice in our criminal justice system. He provides us insight into the realities faced by people who live on death row. The stories display explicit and implicit bias in law enforcement, the punitive-focused laws enacted over the past several decades, and the prevalence of false convictions in our criminal justice system.
Most notably, Stevenson conveys the humanity that inhabits each person, even those on death row. Through telling these stories, he shifts our perspective and draws out compassion, even in the most ardent proponents of capital punishment. No better does he capture this feeling by reminding us that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
In the wake of a new federal criminal justice reform bill, we circle back to one of the most eye-opening books regarding race in our criminal justice system. As extreme as the title of this book sounds, Michelle Alexander proves her argument meticulously. Alexander highlights the devastation caused by the “War on Drugs” during the Nixon-Reagan Presidencies. One focus of the book describes how vestiges of fear-driven policies, which also served as pushback to the Civil Rights Movement, remain as shackles that hold back current reform efforts. Alexander points out how ‘tough on crime’ politics led to the vast overpopulation of our prisons and created the framework for a social, legal, and economic second class status for people of color, primarily African American men. Even though incarceration rates have plateaued and modest reforms have been implemented, this book is still relevant because, as Alexander reminds us, “[t]here is no reason to assume that a smaller correctional system inevitably means a more equitable correctional system.” There is much challenging and complicated work ahead.
Waking Up White by Debby Irving
Conversations about race often include defensiveness, accusations, anger, and frustration. Debby Irving approaches the issue from her personal experiences with race, racism, and the nuanced issue of white privilege. She attempts to combat racism and white superiority while being white, and takes us along through her journey. Irving recalls her past experiences and assumptions with honesty, humility and even humor, breaking down dominant culture and the benefits she received from it. In this re-examination, she identifies deeply-held beliefs that she now considers faulty, primarily due to feelings of race-related anxiety and confusion. These beliefs included ideas such as race being only a biological difference, the idea that racism is only explicit acts done by bigots, and the idea that helping people of color meant teaching them to be more like her.
How is she able to separate racism and white privilege from who she is as a person? This book is a deep dive into a topic that causes great discomfort; it shows us how we can examine our deeply held beliefs and explore the role we play in the inequities we see.
Actual Innocence by Peter Neufeld, Barry Scheck, et al.
The Innocence Project leads the fight against false convictions. Using new DNA testing technology at the near turn of the century, Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck proved the innocence of a convicted rapist on death row. Actual Innocence follows the work of Scheck and Neufeld as they uncover the misconceptions and myths surrounding the criminal justice system. They thoroughly examine the reasons why false convictions are so prevalent: faulty eyewitness testimonies, prosecutorial misconduct, quack science used as evidence, fraud, lack of competent representation, and many other factors that will force you to re-examine your assumptions about our criminal justice process.
Neversays by Randi Bryant
In our effort to foster conversations about implicit bias, diversity, inclusion, and procedural justice, we often hear comments about the issue of oversensitivity or “PC culture” in our society, restricting the ability to speak without fear of reprisal or being shamed. Randi Bryant’s Neversays delves straight into the idea of navigating unfamiliar situations in which we could say something offensive or insensitive. She recognizes the racial and cultural diversity of the United States and the discomfort that may arise from it, not from negative feelings toward people who are different but because of a lack of familiarity with them. Bryant provides a solution to this by giving a straightforward guide on what to never say, on how to avoid situations in which we could offend or hurt another person, and what to do if you’ve done it anyway.
Locking Up Our Own by James Forman
In a book detailing the early history of mass incarceration, the ironic role of African American leaders, and the tragic but unforeseen consequences of their participation, James Forman shows us how our even our best intentions can often lead to tragic and undesirable outcomes. Forman, a former public defender from D.C, recollects his experiences during the height of the war on drugs and the rise of law enforcement. Usually left out of these discussions, he notes, is the enthusiasm that existed in African American leaders, clergymen, activists, elected officials, and police chiefs for stricter law enforcement during the 70s and 80s. These leaders intended to create safer neighborhoods for black communities by supporting these policies, but instead contributed to the creation of more complex problems. Forman shares personal stories about his time as a public defender,and how the system he had to navigate failed the people he needed to serve. His narrative helps us understand how and why we saw an increase of punitive policies leading up to the current system of mass incarceration. It also reminds us to constantly re-evaluate our own approaches to tackling complex issues such as criminal justice reform and recognize that our best intentions are not always enough.
The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater
The 57 Bus tells the story of the 2013 assault of a non-gender conforming private school teen by an African American public school teen on a city bus in Oakland. Providing a more extensive context behind the case than was published by the media, this looks at the life history of both teens before the incident, making the case far more complex than simply the hate crime it was initially portrayed to be. Slater highlights the violence often inflicted against the LGBTQ community, and brings up a discussion of race, non conformity in gender roles, and sexuality. The book also touches on the failings of the criminal justice process involved in the case, and how the lack of procedural justice influenced the outcome of the case.
Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison by Shaka Senghor
In a powerful personal reflection about the most significant events of his life, Shaka Senghor details the experiences of his youth, and the events leading up to his current life as a mentor, activist, advocate, and leader in the criminal justice reform movement. A dysfunctional home life, drug sales on the street to survive, and eventually fatally shooting in a drug deal gone wrong: these were the major events that resulted in Senghor’s prison sentence of 17 to 40 years. In prison, Senghor slowly discovers his passion for reading, writing, and the pursuit of knowledge. He eventually found the strength to forgive himself and others, and strived to pursue a life that could drive him to do important things, things bigger than himself. His story serves to raise awareness about the state of our criminal justice system, how we can help at-risk youth, and highlights the potential for good that resides in every person, regardless of their past. He spreads the message that individuals can change, and that we as a society have the ability to support positive change.
Arrested Development by David Couper
Former Police Chief David Couper shares his experiences as a police officer and Police Chief of the City of Madison, Wisconsin. He tackles the complex question of whether policing can improve with expertise, insight and straightforward solutions. He gives seven ways that the police must change, and believes that if these changes can be made, policing can improve for the better.
Black and Blue by Jeff Pegues
Jeff Pegues provides an in-depth, two-sided account of the growing divide between police and the black community. After killings in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Ferguson, it is no doubt that a growing rift in the U.S. exists, heightening the tension of every interaction between police and people of color throughout the country. Using statistics, research, facts, and meeting with top ranked law enforcement officials such as former FBI Director James Comey, Pegues presents the two perspectives and discusses how law enforcement plans on addressing this growing rift going forward.
Incarceration Nations by Baz Dreisinger
In a more global approach to criminal justice reform, Baz Dreisinger takes us through her journey to the prison systems of nine different countries. She focuses on one alternative to punishment in each country, in an effort to allow for American self-reflection on its own criminal justice system, and re-affirms the fact that the suffering that exists in prison systems is not unique to a single country. For all you criminal justice reform advocates out there, this book is great for considering what alternatives exist to our current criminal justice system.
There Are No Children Here by Alex Koltowitz
There Are No Children Here shares the life experience of the Rivers family as they navigate raising their two boys, Lafayette and Pharoah Rivers, in Chicago. Set in a neighborhood riddled with violence, trauma and poverty, we following the family through moments of happiness, times of sorrow, and their resilience in the face of systemic racism. Another reason to care.