Monday, January 4, 2010

Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice by Paul Butler

Adding up the costs of a lifetime of deprivation and then presenting the bill to the person who suffered it seems an odd job for a humanitarian.

(Background: I read this book for several reasons: the author is a professor at GW and will be teaching my Criminal Procedure class this semester, and I went to a lecture he gave last semester on the topic and it sounded very interesting.)

Butler begins the book with his own story. In short, he was a black Harvard Law grad who became a federal prosecutor in DC. He was falsely accused of assault and tried, but was easily acquitted (based on the story it's hard to imagine he's not telling the truth about his innocence). This experience changed his point of view and soon after he left the prosecutor's office and became a professor. It's very interesting to see how accused criminals are treated generally and the effect that his education and his race had on the events.

Butler's overall thesis is that there is a tipping point at which mass incarceration makes us less safe rather than more. He mentions a number of statistics that support this assertion (which I didn't verify), and it makes sense. Butler says that when you take non-violent offenders in (arguably) victimless crimes, usually drug offenders, and put them in jail for years several unintended consequences result: first, the non-violent offenders are exposed to violent offenders and have plenty of time to learn from them; second, they're basically screwed because we take no steps to educate or rehabilitate them while they're in the clink, so they get out and often have no shot at gaining meaningful employment (in addition to the fact that most people are loathe to hire someone who has spent time in prison); third, the people who the criminal leaves behind suffer (it's not hard to imagine a mother and young child who have suddenly lost the primary bread-winner in the family); fourth, when so many people are incarcerated it starts to reflect poorly on the government, not the convicts, and the stigma goes away.

One thing that I really liked about this book was that Butler doesn't just bitch and moan, he provides a number of solutions, both on a large scale and on a personal level. However, for the most part any improvement would have to come from the top, primarily in the form of new laws and sentencing guidelines.

Other thoughts:
  • According to the National Institute of Health, African Americans make up about 14% of monthly drug users (pretty close to the percentage of the overall population), but 56% of people convicted of drug crimes are African American.
  • Butler advocates jury nullification. Jury nullification occurs when jurors agree that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, but refuse to convict anyway because they either don't agree with the law or think it is being applied unjustly. He thinks it should only be used in certain situations (mostly non-violent, victimless crimes), but thinks that it is a way to send a message to prosecutors and lawmakers. On one hand I think that jury nullification can be a tool for justice and would consider it myself if I were ever on a jury, but on the other I am concerned that it weakens the consistency and predictability of the system. If two people commit the same crime and one of them used a condom and the other didn't, you can make the argument that it's better for society as a whole to let the father go because he has a family to provide for, but is that fair? And is it fair to have a defendant's fate rest on whether he was lucky enough to get the random jury that believes in (and knows about, because the judge doesn't advertise it and the defense isn't allowed to argue for it) jury nullification? In the end I feel like this isn't the best tool to accomplish the goals Butler hopes they will accomplish.
  • I didn't realize the distinction between snitches and witnesses before reading this book. I always thought "snitches get stitches" and like philosophies were at best irresponsible, but apparently snitches are those who rat out criminals in order to get reduced sentences or financial compensation, not normal people who witness crimes and report them. This practice is not very well regulated and leads to unreliable information and a breakdown in trust in communities.
  • The chapter on hip-hop is interesting because it provides a much different perspective on the criminal justice system than I have.
  • Butler also says that people committed to progressive criminal justice ideals shouldn't be prosecutors. He compares trying the change the system from the inside out to someone enlisting in the military because they disagree with the current war.
I could go on, but it's probably best that you just read the book yourself. It's very good (even if he sometimes gets a little repetitive in his conclusions).


Christopher said...

This actually sounds super interesting.

Carlton Farmer said...

I have almost picked this up a number of times.