11 Eye-Opening Books About the American Criminal Justice System

By Joanne Camas
Grid of books, including Her Honor, about Criminal Justice

The following books offer an unflinching look at America’s criminal justice system – flaws and all – and propose a range of reforms to help rebalance the scales.

These powerful reads deliver an essential examination of crime and punishment in America.

Cover of Her Honor by LaDoris Hazzard Cordell

Her Honor

By LaDoris Hazzard Cordell

Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell was the first African American woman to sit on the Superior Court of Northern California. She knows firsthand that biases and failings pervade our legal system, and in her riveting new memoir, she shows us how to enact real change. Cordell draws on a lifetime of judicial experience to offer an insider’s look at the legal battles and human dramas that have unfolded in her courtroom, from her clashes with prosecutors and the tough decisions judges must make to the prejudices that plague legal proceedings and the worrying shift from rehabilitation to punishment. Cordell is clear in her view that American justice often fails to live up to its own standards. Nevertheless, she believes in the crucial role it plays in our democracy, and in her book, she highlights the steps we can take to make an imperfect system more equitable for all.

Cover of Anatomy of Injustice

Anatomy of Injustice

By Raymond Bonner

Few juridical incidents are as distressing as a wrongful conviction or a miscarriage of justice. And yet, this was a harsh reality for Edward Lee Elmore, a soft-spoken, semiliterate Black man from South Carolina who spent over half of his life behind bars after an unjust trial led to his incarceration for murder. In this powerful work, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Raymond Bonner profiles Diana Holt, the determined young attorney who learned of Elmore’s plight and decided to act. Soon after opening Elmore’s case, Holt realized it was riddled with faults, from subpar defenders and shoddy police work to falsified evidence. She spent over a decade fighting for Elmore’s freedom before he was finally released. Bronner vividly chronicles Holt’s battle for Elmore’s life and her pursuit of the truth, revealing the entrenched inequalities that undermine due process.

Cover of Unfair

Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice

By Adam Benforado

In his “important, deeply researched debut” (Kirkus, starred review), Adam Benforado digs deep into the U.S. criminal justice system to reveal the role our hidden biases play in furthering injustice. Benforado draws on real-life court cases and a wealth of scientific research to illustrate how prejudices at the individual level perpetuate legal dysfunction and social inequality – whether it’s our reaction to the number of photos in a mugshot book, the words used in cross-examination, or even the camera angle of a defendant’s taped confession. As human frailty and faulty procedures undercut the due process of law, powerful forces within the system find ways to exploit these weaknesses. And yet Unfair isn’t solely a damning chronicle of criminal injustice: Benforado proposes an array of solutions to help restore justice.

Cover of the new jim crow

The New Jim Crow

By Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking narrative lays bare the role that racism and structural inequality play in our age of mass incarceration. Alexander argues that the racist structures of the criminal justice system perpetuate America’s Jim Crow laws; we haven’t eliminated the country’s “racial caste,” she says, we merely redesigned it. Provocative and galvanizing in equal measure, The New Jim Crow inspired a new generation of criminal justice reform advocates, imploring each and every one of us to take a hard look at ourselves and the system that’s supposed to represent us all.

Cover of A Colony in a Nation

A Colony in a Nation

By Chris Hayes

In this bestseller, MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes argues that America’s criminal justice system operates differently depending on who you are and where you live. While that might not come as a shock to anyone who watches the nightly news, Hayes’s perceptive analysis of America’s fractured identity – what he sees as a Colony within a Nation – puts this divide into stark contrast. Citizens of the Nation revere the legal system and see police as agents of justice; those in the Colony view the law as a punishing method of fear and domination. With compassion and insight, Hayes strives to understand this disparity and seeks out ways to repair the fractured criminal justice system.

Cover of burning down the house

Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison

By Nell Bernstein

In this acclaimed narrative, award-winning journalist Nell Bernstein delivers a harrowing account of America's juvenile justice system “that lays bare our nation’s brutal and counterproductive juvenile prisons” (San Francisco Chronicle). Bernstein gives a voice to the young people who are locked up in detention centers across the country, letting them tell their stories of isolation, abuse, and the struggle to preserve their humanity in a dehumanized environment. The accounts are both heartbreaking and enraging; indeed, Bernstein argues that locking up children is itself a futile act that prevents rehabilitation. Bernstein backs up her case with clear proposals for change and alternative programs to juvenile imprisonment.

Cover of Locking up our own

Locking Up Our Own

By James Forman, Jr.

In this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, James Forman, Jr. examines the crackdown on urban crime in the 1970s through the ’90s and the many Black leaders in America who felt compelled to take a tough-on-crime stance. Forman, a Yale law professor and former public defender, looks to the hardline policies adopted by African American public officials, community organizers, lawyers, and law enforcement officers in response to rising crime rates in our nation’s urban centers – policies that have had a devastating and long-lasting impact on communities of color. Backed by extensive research and firsthand knowledge of the law, Forman’s nuanced account expertly traces the complexities of race and criminal justice in America, elevating our understanding of mass incarceration and showing us how we can begin to undo the damage.

A thought-provoking book cover for 'american prison,' illustrating a deep dive into the business of incarceration, with evocative imagery reflecting the gravity of the subject matter.

American Prison

By Shane Bauer

In this award-winning exposé, investigative reporter Shane Bauer goes undercover as a guard at Louisiana’s Winn Correctional Center to deliver an “enraging, necessary look at the private prison system and a convincing clarion call for prison reform” (NPR). Bauer weaves together on-the-ground accounts of systemic dysfunction and abuse with a sweeping history of America’s for-profit prisons from slavery to the present day. The result is a staggering portrait of a money-driven carceral system that is rife with inequity and ripe for change.

Cover of Charged

Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration

By Emily Bazelon

In this New York Times bestseller, Emily Bazelon probes the outsized power of prosecutors in the U.S. criminal justice system and the level of discretion they have in the cases they pursue. Bazelon uses the true stories of two young defendants to illustrate both the complexity and inequity of the system, putting a face to the issue. She also traces the history of prosecution in America to help us better understand how we ended up in our present-day predicament. Bazelon’s first-person reporting and extensive research exposes the brute legal force behind America’s overincarceration crisis and shows us the steps being taken to restore the balance.

Cover of Locked In

Locked In

By John Pfaff

John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham University of Law, has dedicated his life to the study of law and criminal justice reform. In this thoroughly researched work, he urges us to look beyond the commonly held explanations for mass incarceration in America to what he sees as the underlying sources – in particular, an alarming pattern in prosecutorial conduct that shows prosecutors bringing felony charges at nearly twice the rate they had done before. Pfaff skillfully examines America’s criminal justice system, follows its flaws back to the source, and proposes paths to get us on track to a more just society.

Cover of autobiography of an execution

Autobiography of an Execution

By David Dow

David R. Dow is a lawyer, professor, and the founder of the Texas Innocence Network. He’s represented over 100 death row inmates during state and federal appeals. In this searing memoir, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Dow details the rigors of his life’s work and his steadfast commitment to defending prisoners against execution. Dow is candid about the human cost of capital punishment, charting the physical and emotional toll taken on families, lawyers, and the inmates themselves. He’s also upfront about the deep moral challenges of his efforts; some of his clients are shown to be innocent, while many others are guilty of committing monstrous crimes. Weaving together accounts of real-life capital cases with personal tales of his family life, Dow’s narrative "is a sobering, gripping and candid look into the death penalty" (Publishers Weekly).

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