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Review: The Criminal Law Handbook, 3rd Edition

by Paul Bergman and Sara J. Berman-Barrett. Nolo, 606 pages, paperback, $29.95

A sure-fire method to eliminate future overcrowding of our nation's prisons would be to compel each aspiring scofflaw to read the third edition of The Criminal Law Handbook before his or her 18th birthday. If we agree that forewarned is forearmed, then the handbook would warn and arm each reader against the loss of their liberty and freedom to the criminal justice system.

While not intended as a post-conviction handbook for prisoners, this remarkably well written, logically organized, and easy-to-understand book delivers the unadorned facts on the workings of the criminal justice system in the United States. From a suspect's first encounter with police to last-resort post-conviction remedies, the authors describe each step of the search-and-seizure, arrest, bail, arraignment, indictment, plea bargaining, trial, rules of evidence, sentencing, and appeal processes.

Much of the material is presented in question-and-answer format. The authors often draw upon the trials of such renowned defendants as Timothy McVeigh and 0. J. Simpson to add realism to an otherwise dry point of law or procedure.

With abundant references to U.S. Supreme Court decisions (full citations and a table of cases would measurably enhance the book), significant points of law from Miranda v. Arizona to Strickland v. Washington guide the reader through the genesis and maturation of precedents in our body of case law.

Among the book's few shortcomings is the section describing the role and function of a grand jury is disappointingly brief while the section that repeatedly encourages every defendant to retain counsel is so overlong.

On balance, the authors' treatment of almost every important aspect of criminal law overcomes the book's few shortcomings. Providing more guidance to post-conviction indigent defendants who are attempting to obtain copies of their trial transcripts plus an explanation of the time limits for filing post-AEDPA federal habeas corpus petitions would, however, significantly increase the books utility value.

The handbook concludes with a useful chapter titled "Looking Up the Law" which might have emphasized the difference between statute or "black-letter" law and case law. A list of legal resource web sites and a glossary of legal terms were particularly valuable features of the final chapter.

Overall, The Criminal Law Handbook is a good value and an authoritative reference for the layman who seeks to unravel the mysteries of our criminal justice system before being locked away in a jail or prison.

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