Summer is finally here! No, it’s not technically yet, but it feels like it should be! There is no time like the present to get your summer reading in order and we have recommendations for you. This summer, we are focusing our suggestions on criminal justice reform and its many issues, including mass incarceration, racial disparity in prosecuting and sentencing, and the criminalization of poverty. PBI has been directly involved in criminal justice reform efforts through our Minnesota Collaborative Justice Project. The Project involves stakeholders from more than 25 organizations working together to reduce recidivism and dramatically improve the experiences and outcomes of formerly incarcerated men and women to enable them to lead full and productive lives.
In 2015, we highlighted Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, a memoir by Bryan Stevenson about his career reforming America’s justice system and helping to free the wrongly convicted. One such case that Stevenson worked on was the wrongful conviction of Anthony Ray Hinton. In 1985, Hinton was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death row. He maintained his innocence while burdened with the lack of resources for adequate representation and served 30 years on death row until his exoneration and release in 2015. Earlier this year, Hinton published his memoir, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row, detailing his resilience and hope during his time in prison and his journey to freedom. As Stevenson notes: “No one I have represented has inspired me more than Anthony Ray Hinton and I believe his compelling and unique story will similarly inspire our nation and readers all over the world.”
The United States imprisons more of its residents than any other country, which has led to overcrowding and the growth of for-profit prisons. Mass incarceration has been exacerbated by the country’s “tough on crime” policies that originated almost 50 years ago and continue today. To dive deeper into these issues, check out Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman, Jr. Through his research and personal experience as a public defender in Washington, D.C., Forman documents the war on crime, which originated in the 1970s and was supported by many officials and influential leaders in the African-American community. Forman writes movingly about people trapped in terrible circumstances – from the men and women represented to officials responding to sky-high crime rates. His work enriches our understanding of the rise of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people and communities of color.
Friend of PBI Lauren-Brooke Eisen, of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program at NYU School of Law, also explores the issue of mass incarceration and for-profit prisons in her book, Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Eisen focuses on the role that private prisons play through the lenses of inmates and their families, prison employees, law enforcement officials, and more, while weaving in historical perspective and quantitative information. Private prisons make billions of dollars, create infrastructure, and provide jobs in otherwise rural communities. In the past two decades, the profits from private prisons have increased more than 500 percent. While private prisons are not going away, Eisen aims to answer the question of how do we improve them? Interested in learning even more about issues related to private prisons and “poverty penalties? Check out our webinar, Ferguson, Fines, and Fees, which explores the costs associated with being a low-income offender and the fees that fund the criminal justice system. The webinar is available on demand—so you can listen to it anywhere—even on the beach!
If you need to get out of the sun for an afternoon to bask in some air conditioning, we also have two movie recommendations to help you beat the heat this summer. Don’t miss the classic and Academy Award-nominated The Shawshank Redemption. The tale explores prison life, and the challenges of reentry. Also, be sure to check out Ava DuVernay’s Academy Award-nominated Netflix documentary, 13TH. DuVernay mixes interviews and video footage to document how structural racism within the criminal justice system has done –and continues to do –profound damage to communities of color.
If you make it through these recommendations, you can also check out some of our past favorite pro bono related reads, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Evicted by Matthew Desmond. As all of these books and movies demonstrate, there are a wide variety of opportunities for pro bono lawyers to get involved and make a meaningful difference – from individual representation to impact litigation to policy advocacy and legislative reform. We hope you’ll be inspired to get involved.