A sobering review of the ills of the American criminal justice system and a few prescriptions for reform.
Police arrest around 14 million people each year in the United States, leaving 65 million people with criminal records and 20 million with a history of incarceration. The American criminal justice system, Platt (Affiliated Scholar/Center for the Study of Law & Society, Univ. of California; Grave Matters: Excavating California’s Buried Past, 2011, etc.) argues, is unique in its approach to prisons and jails. Tracing the history of incarceration and its complex roots, he thoroughly discusses how class, race, and gender shape the criminal justice system. Race and militarism play particularly central roles in what the author views as a dysfunctional approach to criminalization. He also tracks the historic influence of politics, fear, private policing, and international business. Platt believes correcting these problems will be difficult, citing a long history of failed reforms that remind us to “make sure the velvet glove does not cover an iron fist.” The author encourages readers to re-examine criminal stereotypes and to both value the incarcerated and appreciate their attempts at resistance. While reviewing the modern political approach to law and order, Platt chronicles his hopes and frustrations, which seem to ebb and flow with liberal and conservative administrations. The author is decidedly leftist; he even joined a Marxist party until its implosion in the 1980s. Platt calls for bold thinking but never quite offers groundbreaking solutions that might otherwise make the book more useful. Most of his suggestions, tucked away at the end of the book, are familiar and widely analyzed elsewhere—e.g., reining in private security operations, reducing incarceration and deportation of immigrants, and welfare reform. Ultimately, the author focuses less on these solutions than on the intrinsic and historic barriers to any reform. Still, the historical analysis will give pause to even the most ardent supporters of law enforcement agencies.
A thoroughly leftist, intermittently applicable look at the state of American criminal justice.