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November 13, 2019

"Usual Cruelty The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System"

Usual_cruelty_finalThe title of this post is the title of this notable new book authored by former public defender, Alec Karakatsanis.  The publisher, The New Press, provides this accounting of the book: 

From an award-winning civil rights lawyer, a profound challenge to our society’s normalization of the caging of human beings, and the role of the legal profession in perpetuating it.

Alec Karakatsanis is interested in what we choose to punish.  For example, it is a crime in most of America for poor people to wager in the streets over dice; dice-wagerers can be seized, searched, have their assets forfeited, and be locked in cages. It’s perfectly fine, by contrast, for people to wager over international currencies, mortgages, or the global supply of wheat; wheat-wagerers become names on the wings of hospitals and museums.

He is also troubled by how the legal system works when it is trying to punish people.  The bail system, for example, is meant to ensure that people return for court dates. But it has morphed into a way to lock up poor people who have not been convicted of anything.  He’s so concerned about this that he has personally sued court systems across the country, resulting in literally tens of thousands of people being released from jail when their money bail was found to be unconstitutional.

Karakatsanis doesn’t think people who have gone to law school, passed the bar, and sworn to uphold the Constitution should be complicit in the mass caging of human beings — an everyday brutality inflicted disproportionately on the bodies and minds of poor people and people of color and for which the legal system has never offered sufficient justification. Usual Cruelty is a profoundly radical reconsideration of the American “injustice system” by someone who is actively, wildly successfully, challenging it.

This Amazon page about the book provides a "look inside" that includes the introduction explaining that the book is primarily the collection of three notable essays by Alec Karakatsanis that have been previously published.  This recent Intercept piece has an interview with the author that gets set up this way:

Alec Karakatsanis's “Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System” should be assigned reading for every first-year law student.  Published last month by The New Press, the book is an unusually blunt takedown of a system the author never once refers to as a criminal “justice” system.  Litigated with the intellectual vigor of someone who has won a number of landmark fights in federal court, “Usual Cruelty” clearly lays out a case for why our criminal legal system is not broken, but doing exactly what it was designed to do.

At a time when talk of justice reform has become mainstream but risks becoming hollow, and phrases like “progressive prosecutor” contribute to the deception that we are, in fact, making progress, Karakatsanis is clear-eyed about the bigger picture. But while “Usual Cruelty” is ultimately an abolitionist book that calls on people to imagine a world with fewer laws and in which jails and prisons aren’t the default response to all social problems, Karakatsanis is also keenly aware of how lawyers can use the law’s tools to fight the law’s harm.  At Civil Rights Corps, the nonprofit he founded, Karakatsanis takes on cases challenging systemic injustices in the legal system — like cash bail and the systems of fines and fees that keep poor people in jail — which he says have become so “normalized and entrenched” they barely give us pause.

November 13, 2019 at 10:19 AM | Permalink

Comments

It is a serious problem here in Fayette County, Kentucky that District Court (misdemeanor cases) and Circuit Court (felony cases) Judges routinely lock up poor people who cannot pay their Court costs and criminal fines, despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that indigent defendants are not to be jail just because they cannot pay. The local public defenders' office is well aware of this problem, as is the criminal defense bar, but no one has filed on it in Federal Court or done anything else to stop these practices.

Posted by: James Gormley | Nov 13, 2019 12:02:37 PM

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