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Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System, by Alec Karakatsanis


(The New Press, Oct. 2019). 208 pages. $24.99 hardcover

Book review by Sam Feldman

Over 2.2 million people in America are being held in cages by the government, and Alec Karakatsanis’ new book demands that we ask why. Karakatsanis, a civil rights attorney and executive director of the Civil Rights Corps, has spent his career fighting mass incarceration. He is convinced that prisons, jails and the system that refers to itself as “law enforcement” are making us less safe, not more. In Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System, he sets out to demonstrate the hypocrisy, irrationality and everyday horrors of what he calls the “punishment bureaucracy.”

The three essays that make up Karakatsanis’ book were written at different points in his career and have different focuses, but his central themes are consistent and compelling. The supposed values of our criminal justice system – the impartial administration of law, reluctance to infringe on protected rights, safeguards against arbitrary abuse of power – are nowhere to be found in the communities subjected to surveillance, search and seizure, or in the courtrooms and cages through which the human beings extracted from those communities are processed.

Karakatsanis points an accusatory finger at the operators of this system, lawyers and judges in particular. We require proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to convict someone at trial, and we demand compelling reasons before we allow the infringement of constitutional rights such as the right to raise one’s children. At the same time that we pride ourselves on these legal traditions, however, we’ve developed a system of mass incarceration despite the lack of any proof that it is solving the social problems used to justify its existence.

As Karakatsanis emphasizes, the way crime is defined and punished is profoundly political. Gambling in the street over dice is illegal, but operating casinos or speculating in currency or real estate is both legal and highly profitable. A wide array of plants and chemicals are so illicit that selling or even possessing them can land you in prison, yet hospitals and museums have wings named for generous benefactors who reaped their wealth selling different types of harmful plants and chemicals. It’s a crime for government officials to reveal certain information they’re supposed to keep secret, but it’s not a crime for them to withhold information they’re legally required to disclose.

Once these political decisions have been made – often with input from those who stand to benefit – they’re carried out unequally. For example, drug raids are directed at low-income neighborhoods rather than dormitories at the nearby university, and resources spent on those raids aren’t used to investigate insider trading and tax evasion in the skyscrapers downtown. If wealthy white communities were policed at the same rate and in the same manner as the least powerful neighborhoods, Karakatsanis suggests, the resulting outcry would attract constant news coverage and demands for change.

While Karakatsanis’ well-researched and precisely footnoted book aims to make his legal colleagues and the public see what’s in front of their eyes and behind our prison walls, he also aims to make us feel. One of his most effective moments comes in the introduction, when he describes his fight against the practice of shackling every child brought into D.C. juvenile court. These children, some as young as eight and many already traumatized, were held in metal chains for as long as an entire day. In his three years as a D.C. public defender, Karakatsanis writes, “I never saw a white child in those courtrooms.” He and his colleagues eventually managed a partial victory, so that only 20 percent rather than all of the children are shackled in D.C. court today.

Karakatsanis grimly imagines the reaction of the judges, prosecutors and other court personnel who routinely oversaw the shackling of vulnerable black children in court if they returned home one night “to find that their babysitter had bound their children in metal chains.” Even if the babysitter claimed the children had misbehaved, Karakatsanis suspects the parents would have demanded a full justification for such extraordinary measures. Is it too much to ask that we extend the same concern to other people’s children?

Although he’s wary of the new wave of self-described progressive prosecutors, Karakatsanis has hope for the future. In outlining six shortcomings of overly cautious reforms, he also identifies corresponding principles for shrinking the criminal justice system and repairing its harms. In the end, he suggests, the solutions may come from the bottom up; that is, from the communities that have suffered the brunt of the punishment bureaucracy. Usual Cruelty’s clear indictment of our justice system will be a useful tool in bringing about those solutions.

Karakatsanis’ book is available from Amazon and other booksellers. 

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