It took the state six long years to realize I wasn’t a threat to society before they ripped me out of baby jail and put me with Ms. Stein. From one prison to another, that’s all it was. Understand, there’s a big difference between baby jail and juvie, where the rest of the girls in the house come from. Juvie is for badass kids who do stuff like rob bodegas, steal cars, maybe stupidly try to kill someone. Baby jail is for kids who’ve done way worse, like me.
Allegedly, by Tiffany D. Jackson

And what is the “way worse” that Mary Addison is talking about?

When she was nine years old, she killed a three-month old baby.

Now, it’s a month from Mary Addison’s sixteenth birthday. Her future is uncertain—the other girls in her group home are violent, the women who run it are unhelpful at best—and now that she’s pregnant, the uncertainty has more than doubled. For years now, she has endured everything that’s been thrown at her, she has kept quiet about what really happened that night. Now, knowing that she won’t be allowed to keep the baby otherwise, she’s ready to tell her truth. But that truth will have repercussions for her mother.

Allegedly is a story about the juvenile justice system, a story about mothers and children, a story about trust as it grows and as it erodes, and it’s a did-she-didn’t-she mystery. It works on all of those levels. The storylines about mothers and children parallel, compliment, and comment on one another, as do the storylines about trust. The commentary about the justice system never veers into preachiness or didacticism; the mystery is suspenseful, wonderfully paced, and twisty, but never forgets that the characters at its heart are people.

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Mary’s situation is a ripped-from-the-headlines situation, but it’s never exploitative, never titillating, never treats pain as entertainment. Allegedly actually does the opposite—by including fictionalized excerpts from true crime books, newspaper, and magazine articles about Mary’s case, Jackson reminds her readers again and again that the true crime stories we follow so avidly, that we devour, are about real people and involve real pain.

As a part of making these stories, the pain of other people, into entertainment, we armchair quarterback decisions made in impossible situations. We debate and critique those choices, but we do it from afar, and we do it with detachment. We don’t consider the emotional maelstrom surrounding those choices, and we don’t consider the life experience that led up to the choices we see as so simple. When we say things like, “Ugh, why didn’t she just CALL THE COPS???” we’re not considering or acknowledging the possibility that she might have very specific reasons to distrust or even fear authority figures in general, let alone law enforcement. In this book, Jackson makes us consider all of that.

Allegedly is a portrait of a justice system that isn’t about rehabilitation, but erasure. It’s a portrait of a justice system that doesn’t improve inmates’ lives, but exacerbates their problems. It deals frankly with race, economic class, different forms of abuse and the dynamics that surround it, and it deals with bureaucracy. It shows how a system—a system that is supposedly in place to facilitate moving forward—actually, in practice, holds people back. How the more hoops and the less explanation you add to a supposedly simple process—getting a valid photo ID to take the SATs, for example, or registering to vote—the fewer people who will ultimately achieve that goal.

Mary isn’t a reliable narrator. She seems like she is at first, but eventually, readers will start to question not only her motivations, but her honesty. And yet, Mary’s unreliability doesn’t come close to softening Jackson’s indictment of the justice system—she shows how a broken system fails everyone, regardless of guilt or innocence.

In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom and The Backlist, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.