A curated collection of essential reading for a holistic understanding of where criminal justice reform is today and how we got here.
1. Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives of Women’s Prisons
Edited by Ayelet Waldman and Robin Levi with a Foreword by Michelle Alexander
As is often the after-thought in any movement, the question now comes in the criminal justice reform conversation: What about the women? In this collection of essays thirteen female narrators recount their lives leading up to incarceration and share their experiences inside. Trauma, abuse, neglect, and violence both before and during incarceration are laced through in startling consistency. These stories provide for a better understanding of how we can approach rehabilitation and policy from a trauma-informed place.
2. Just Mercy
By Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson delivered this seminal book three years ago and it has since remained one of the most powerful books on the brutality and unfairness of the US criminal justice system. Stevenson tells the story of one of his first cases as a lawyer, that of Walter McMillian, a man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Stevenson into a struggle against injustice, bias, and corruption, ultimately revealing the transformative potential of mercy.
3. Justice that Restores
By Charles Colson
In 1975, after serving time in prison, Charles Colson began a Christian ministry for the incarcerated. What started as a religious and spiritual endevour progressed into a movement of alternatives for those inside. Restorative justice programs and education programs took shape, calling for more humane treatment of incarcerated people. Colson shows why the prevailing systems of criminal justice aren’t effective by using personal anecdotes, historical evidence, and undeniable statistics, making a convincing argument for the ways in which recidivism can be reduced. Once Special Counsel to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal, Colson became an unlikely advocate for criminal justice reform and much is owed to his efforts for the surge in conservative support on the issue.
4. Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption
By Nancy Mullane
In an intimate account of the lives of five men sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole, award-winning journalist Nancy Mullane shares stories of incarcerated men who have found remorse, healing, and hope. Their stories are not uncommmon, but are often removed from the dominant discourse surrounding the incarcerated. Originially tasked with reporting on the rising costs of incarceration, Mullane finds herself on a journey with the men she writes about, leading to tough questions that don’t always have answers. Is once a murderer always a murderer? After experiencing decades in prison is returning home the real challenge of a lifetime? Can these men even get there?
Exploring the immense human capacity for change and redeption, Mullane’s book is deeply important for this moment in criminal justice reform. In the next few years, as hundreds of men and women continue to return home from prison who previously never had a chance, how do we accept them back into society?
5. Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform
By John F. Pfaff
The power of prosecutorial discretion is not talked about enough in the criminal justice reform conversation. Last year, with the passage of Proposition 57 in California, judges were able to reign in some of the authority prosecutors have in deciding whether a juvenile is sent to adult court. This is just one of the many ways prosecutors have wielded enourmous influence over the judicial process. Pfaff’s book is the most important read on criminal justice reform today; picking apart the dominant discourse on the root causes of mass incarceration, presenting alternative factors, and calling for action in how to fix it.
Furthermore, Pfaff digs into a conversation many have steared clear of: to significantly reduce prison populations, we must think differently in our approach to people convicted of violent crimes- and why they occur in the first place. Locked In transforms everything we know about our current system of punishment and urges us to reconsider how to build a more equitable and humane society. Mandatory reading.
6. Policing the Black Man: Arresr, Prosecution, and Imprisonment
Edited By Angela J. Davis
Policing the Black Man is an anthology of essays featuring some of the nation’s most influential and respected criminal justice experts and legal scholars. The authors explore the ways the criminal justice system impacts the lives of African American boys and men at every stage of the criminal process. From the historical roots of racism to the killings of unarmed black men at the hands of police, contributors discuss how factors such as racial profiling and implicit bias skew police and prosecutorial decisions. These decisions have directly led to mass incarceration and the disproportionate imprisonment of black men. The book is an musty-read for anyone looking to understand the Black Lives Matter movement and crucial issues surrounding race and justice in America.
7. Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice
By Adam Benforado
An interdisciplinary approach to criminal justice is slowly taking shape to create more balance in our understanding and approach to reform. Adam Benforado fuses the latest in neuroscience and psychology with legal scholarship to uncover major flaws in how we administer justice. Benforado demonstrates how our unconscious biases and cognition hold great power over our decision-making and lead to fatal failures in our criminal justice system. In acknowledging certain undeniable inclinations of human behavior and thought, Benforado reveals a set of reforms worth serious attention.
Sara Sindija is the Deputy Director of Re:store Justice. She oversees programs and communications with partner organizations, schools, and state and local government. Approaching incarceration and reform through a human rights lens, she has worked directly with affected populations for more trauma-informed policy and programs.