NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A renowned journalist and legal commentator exposes the unchecked power of the prosecutor as a driving force in America’s mass incarceration crisis—and charts a way out.
“An important, thoughtful, and thorough examination of criminal justice in America that speaks directly to how we reduce mass incarceration.”—Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy
“This harrowing, often enraging book is a hopeful one, as well, profiling innovative new approaches and the frontline advocates who champion them.”—Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted
FINALIST FOR THE LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE • SHORTLISTED FOR THE J. ANTHONY LUKAS BOOK PRIZE • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR • The New York Public Library • Library Journal • Publishers Weekly • Kirkus Reviews
The American criminal justice system is supposed to be a contest between two equal adversaries, the prosecution and the defense, with judges ensuring a fair fight. That image of the law does not match the reality in the courtroom, however. Much of the time, it is prosecutors more than judges who control the outcome of a case, from choosing the charge to setting bail to determining the plea bargain. They often decide who goes free and who goes to prison, even who lives and who dies. In Charged, Emily Bazelon reveals how this kind of unchecked power is the underreported cause of enormous injustice—and the missing piece in the mass incarceration puzzle.
Charged follows the story of two young people caught up in the criminal justice system: Kevin, a twenty-year-old in Brooklyn who picked up his friend’s gun as the cops burst in and was charged with a serious violent felony, and Noura, a teenage girl in Memphis indicted for the murder of her mother. Bazelon tracks both cases—from arrest and charging to trial and sentencing—and, with her trademark blend of deeply reported narrative, legal analysis, and investigative journalism, illustrates just how criminal prosecutions can go wrong and, more important, why they don’t have to.
Bazelon also details the second chances they prosecutors can extend, if they choose, to Kevin and Noura and so many others. She follows a wave of reform-minded D.A.s who have been elected in some of our biggest cities, as well as in rural areas in every region of the country, put in office to do nothing less than reinvent how their job is done. If they succeed, they can point the country toward a different and profoundly better future.
In this timely exploration, Bazelon, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, argues that "the unfettered power of prosecutors is the missing piece for explaining how the number of people incarcerated in the United States has quintupled since the 1980s." Bazelon skillfully illustrates this idea by following the developments in two gripping cases with novelistic intensity. In the first, an old-school prosecutor's win-at-any-cost philosophy and questionable ethical behavior results in the conviction of a young Tennessee woman charged with a brutal murder, which is unanimously overturned by an appellate court years later because of prosecutorial misconduct. The second features the opposite: under a policy intended to reduce incarceration rates developed by a progressive district attorney in Brooklyn, a young man facing a gun possession charge pursues diversion (a rehabilitation program) rather than a two-year minimum sentence. Bazelon adeptly explains the culture that drives traditional district attorneys and the philosophies of reform-minded district attorneys, then briefly delves into the difficulty of preventing prosecutorial misconduct, the inequities of a bail system that effectively criminalizes poverty, systemic racial disparities, the sociological arguments for diversion, and how severe mandatory sentences distort the criminal justice system. Then, with modest optimism, she presents a road map for the emerging reform movement. This is a powerful indictment of the traditional prosecution model.