My local public library recently acquired a copy of Sentence: Ten Years and a Thousand Books in Prison by Daniel Genis. It’s a memoir of the author’s ten years in the New York prison system. I found it interesting, but ultimately not completely successful. Continue reading
Tag Archives: book review
A few years ago, I attend the Judicial Conference of the Fourth Circuit, where I heard Bryan Stevenson speak. The address was captivating. Stevenson spoke of representing the wrongly accused and the wrongly convicted. He told of advocating for juveniles who were incarcerated with adults and who were sexually abused as a result. He urged the audience to get a little closer to the criminal justice system, and to look a little more carefully at it. Now Stevenson has written a book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Among many other awards, it was named a best book of the year by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Time magazine. I thought it was good, but not great. Continue reading →
I’ve just finished Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Justice by Drexel University law professor Adam Benafordo. The reviews I’ve seen online have been positive. For example, the Boston Globe opines that the book “succinctly and persuasively recounts cutting-edge research testifying to the faulty and inaccurate procedures that underpin virtually all aspects of our criminal justice system.” And the book has attracted enough attention for Professor Benafordo to be interviewed on NPR’s hit show Fresh Air. This post briefly summarizes the book and then offers a few thoughts about it. Continue reading →
I recently finished Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World. It’s a terrific book and an interesting companion to another outstanding Supreme Court memoir, Justice Clarence Thomas’s My Grandfather’s Son.
In a nutshell, My Beloved World traces Justice Sotomayor’s life from her early childhood in the Bronx through her confirmation as a federal district court judge. She doesn’t write about her judicial career, which she views as a work in progress. Nor does she discuss her judicial philosophy. The book is about her personal story, not her legal perspective.
Fortunately, her personal story is mesmerizing. She grew up mostly in public housing. Her father, described as a usually sweet man afflicted by alcoholism, died when she was nine. Her mother worked long hours as a nurse and was often absent, physically as well as emotionally. Young Sonia was, of necessity, independent and self-sufficient; she was diagnosed with diabetes and at age seven learned to administer her own shots as no adult could be counted on to do so. Yet she was nonetheless rooted in the rich soil of a large extended family and a strong Puerto Rican community. She was also extremely close to her brother, now a physician; a brilliant cousin; and other exceptional peers.
She attended Catholic school through twelfth grade, and despite the challenges of growing up poor and sometimes living a long distance from her school, she excelled. She was involved in student government, and it is evident that she came naturally to networking and politics. She also participated in speech and debate, an experience she discusses in some detail.
Next up was Princeton. She did well academically, worked hard at part-time jobs (including one in a cutting-edge computer lab), and was deeply involved in the minority student community and in the fight for affirmative action. Her strong support for affirmative action stands in stark contrast to Justice Thomas’s disdain for it, but the issue commands attention in both books.
She went to law school at Yale, where she continued collecting friends and mentors, including Jose Cabranes, now a judge on the Second Circuit. She worked one summer at a big firm, but she did not receive an offer for a permanent job. Although some encouraged her to view that as a result of prejudice, she believed that it was due to the low quality of her written work, so she redoubled her efforts to improve her writing. She landed after graduation at the district attorney’s office in New York, where she thrived professionally. On a personal level, though, the long hours and her single-minded focus on her work took a toll, and her marriage to her high school sweetheart dissolved.
After several years as a prosecutor, Justice Sotomayor moved to a small civil firm. She had an interesting practice, with an international flair. She represented clients from fashion houses to Ferrari, and continued her involvement in nonprofits working with the Latino community. Everyone recognized that she was a star destined for the bench, and she was nominated for a district court judgeship in her 30s, making her among the youngest federal judges in the country.
The book is ultimately uplifting. Justice Sotomayor did everything right – she worked hard, she challenged herself, she served others, and she consistently excelled under difficult circumstances – and she reaped tremendous rewards. It’s also interesting from a historical perspective. Her description of her forebears’ experiences in Puerto Rico are engaging, albeit brief. And her portrayal of her childhood in the 1950s and 1960s is interesting in part because it sounds very different from life in many urban housing projects today. Her neighborhood and her family were poor, but both her parents, like virtually all the adults in the area, worked full time. Many households were headed by married couples. Drugs had only begun their assault on inner city life.
For those interested in further reading, the New York Times review of the book is here. But I recommend treating yourself to the book, and to Justice Thomas’s as well. As far as I know, they are the only sitting Justices who have written autobiographies. Others are the subject of third-party biographies, of course, like Joan Biskupic’s book about Justice Antonin Scalia, and the Court itself offers a web page with a short official biography for each Justice. For my money, though, there’s nothing quite like a memoir, and this is a good one.
I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed a book on the blog before — maybe this prior post would qualify — but I recently finished Don’t Shoot, by
Paul David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College in New York. It’s available on Amazon here, and I thought that others might find it interesting.
Kennedy has worked with police departments across the country for several decades, initially trying to devise strategies to reduce gun violence, and later trying to address open-air drug markets, which he views as a critical blight on inner-city communities. At least to hear him tell it, his work has been successful on both scores. At a minimum, it has been very influential. The $2 billion federal program called Project Safe Neighborhoods is based, at least in part, on his ideas.
Some of Kennedy’s most famous work has been here, in North Carolina, especially in High Point. In collaboration with others, Kennedy devised a strategy of building federal drug cases against the most active dealers, then calling the dealers in to a meeting with police, showing them the evidence, and telling them (1) that if they kept dealing drugs, the police would arrest them based on the evidence they already had, and the dealers would be sent to prison, but (2) that if they stopped dealing drugs, social service agencies would help them change their lives. According to Kennedy, the strategy totally shut down High Point’s notorious drug markets without requiring many arrests, and without creating a vacuum to be filled by new dealers. In this report, he summarizes the strategy and its subsequent implementation in other cities.
Kennedy’s work to reduce gun violence doesn’t have the same connection to North Carolina, though some of his theories, first developed and tested in the Boston Gun Project, have been implemented here. His basic analysis of the issue is as follows: most urban gun violence is committed by, and against, a very small number of criminally-involved young men. Although most of those men are involved in gangs that sell drugs, much of the violence results not from turf battles or other business affairs, but from personal feuds about girls and “respect.” The violence is supported by street culture — by peer pressure to respond to perceived slights with bullets. That peer pressure towards violence, according to Kennedy, can be reversed, can be turned into peer pressure against violence, if the police can talk to the groups involved and credibly threaten to come down hard on every member of a group if any member of that group commits a shooting. Dealing with groups rather than individuals, and trying to pull levers of rationality for those groups, are the keys to Kennedy’s plan for reducing gun violence.
Because his solutions to both drug markets and gun violence involve focusing on a small number of known or suspected offenders, Kennedy’s work is viewed as a targeted, perhaps even “progressive,” alternative to zero tolerance policing, frequent stop and frisks, and massive arrests. (The latter model is frequently associated with New York City, and former mayor Rudy Giuliani.)
Although Kennedy cites data supporting the efficacy of his interventions, I admit that I’m not completely sold. First, the data isn’t always robust. Homicides are comparatively rare even in the most dangerous cities, and there is considerable year-to-year fluctuation in homicide rates. Against that backdrop, and given the overall reduction in murder rates over the past several decades, it is hard to be sure that the reductions cited by Kennedy are significant. Second, even if the benefits of his strategies are real, they seem to be difficult to sustain. They may suffer from the pilot program effect, working when they are new and exciting and receiving the focused efforts of the very best people in the community, but failing to work when the bloom goes off the rose. Third, there are some seeming incoherencies in his analysis. For example, he claims that urban homicides are very difficult to solve – and indeed, are rarely solved – yet his strategy of coming down hard on the perpetrator of any shooting and all his friends requires solving the homicide and identifying the perpetrator.
Still, the book overall is pretty convincing, and for the most part, it’s well-written and engaging, too. I would be interested in hearing from those who have worked with Kennedy or any of his projects. Have they worked? Are they still working?
Finally, I’ll add that I found the book inspiring because it’s about an academic who didn’t lose his connection to, and interest in, the real world and its problems. We try to remain grounded in reality here at the School of Government, but Kennedy, working out of windowless police stations and walking the streets of Baltimore and Compton, takes engaged scholarship to a whole different level. If you can think of ways that the university can help solve real-world criminal justice problems, let me know. We’ll do our best to help.
At a recent CLE, Charlotte defense attorney Chris Fialko mentioned that he’s been enjoying Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto. Chris is a pretty sharp guy, and I had a plane trip coming up, so I bought the book and read it. I liked it too, and thought it had a few lessons for criminal lawyers. We don’t do a lot of book reviews on the blog — actually, we’ve never done one — but this seemed consistent with the mission of the blog, so here goes.
First off, here’s the publisher’s synopsis of the book:
The modern world has given us stupendous know-how. Yet avoidable failures continue to plague us in health care, government, the law, the financial industry—in almost every realm of organized activity. And the reason is simple: the volume and complexity of knowledge today has exceeded our ability as individuals to properly deliver it to people—consistently, correctly, safely. We train longer, specialize more, use ever-advancing technologies, and still we fail. Atul Gawande makes a compelling argument that we can do better, using the simplest of methods: the checklist. In riveting stories, he reveals what checklists can do, what they can’t, and how they could bring about striking improvements in a variety of fields, from medicine and disaster recovery to professions and businesses of all kinds.
Despite the reference to “the law” in the above blurb, the book doesn’t talk much about the law. Gawande talks about flying planes, construction, and other tasks in which checklists have well-established uses. Then, because he’s a surgeon, he emphasizes medicine and ways in which checklists can be used to improve outcomes there. But I immediately started thinking about checklists and the criminal law.
For example, I handled a number of appeals when I was in private practice, but I never developed a checklist of things to make sure I considered. I think I would have done a better job if I had systematically determined, for each case, whether the indictment was proper, whether there was a venue issue, whether the judgment was entered out of term, and so on.
Now, I get a lot of phone calls during trial when unexpected evidentiary issues arise. I do my best to help, but of course it would be better to sort these issues out under less time pressure. Many trial lawyers create trial notebooks that include exhibit lists — essentially, a checklist that indicates whether each planned exhibit has been marked, offered, and accepted. Perhaps lawyers should create a pretrial equivalent, i.e., a pretrial checklist of each key piece of evidence that prompts the lawyer to ask systematically what possible issues might arise with respect to that evidence. Such a system wouldn’t prevent all unanticipated issues, but it might cut down the number substantially.
And it isn’t just lawyers who might benefit from checklists. There are a few errors that judges make regularly. Perhaps the most common is entering an order of restitution based on the prosecutor’s representation of the loss amount, which isn’t evidence and can’t support a restitution award. (It happened again in State v. Elkins, released in the last batch of court of appeals opinions.) Could or should judges create checklists for the most common oversights? Likewise, are there checklists that officers could or should use to ensure that they are not overlooking essential steps in an investigation? I believe that most officers now use checklists when conducting lineups, and I’d be interested in feedback about how that’s working.
This short post can’t do justice to the book. But Gawande’s point is that for many professionals, the problem isn’t a lack of knowledge, it is our tendency to overlook things that we know — often very simple things — in the course of doing what are often enormously complicated jobs. If you’ve never had the experience of thinking, “how did I miss that?” when looking back at a case, kudos to you. But if you have, you might find the book interesting. And if you use a checklist or similar device in your work, and you’d care to share your experience with it, please post a comment.