Reviews: September/October 2019

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Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration
Emily Bazelon ’93, ’00JD
Random House, $28
Reviewed by Jacob Weisberg ’87

Jacob Weisberg ’87 is CEO of the podcasting company Pushkin Industries and a lecturer at Yale.

In the early 1970s, cities on the East and West Coasts imprisoned people at approximately the same rate as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Today, the United States as a whole has the highest incarceration rate in the world, more than ten times that of most northern European countries. How does this system work? And how do we go about de-massing American incarceration? Emily Bazelon tries to answer those questions by focusing on the role of prosecutors, weaving two very different narratives though her gripping new book, Charged.

One is the horrifying case of Noura Jackson, who spent a decade in Tennessee prisons after being wrongfully convicted of murdering her mother. The other is about a young black man Bazelon calls Kevin, who was charged with gun possession in Brooklyn and wasn’t guilty either. Relating these stories, Bazelon shows us how prosecution can go wildly astray. Among her culprits are a bail system that primarily serves a for-profit industry, plea-bargaining that bludgeons the innocent into pleading guilty, and a series of Supreme Court decisions restricting the Brady rule, which allow district attorneys to withhold exculpatory evidence from defense counsel. She also offers an agenda for repair being advanced by reform prosecutors in cities around the country: move toward eliminating cash bail, restrain plea bargaining, and make diversionary programs, rather than prison, the rule. Bazelon is one of the best legal explicators we have. She writes here with calm passion, leaving readers outraged while offering journalistic fairness even to those she holds responsible for perpetuating a monstrous system.

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