Book Review, Emily Bazelon, Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration
69 Journal of Legal Education 814 (2020), https://jle.aals.org/home/
12 Pages Posted: 10 May 2021 Last revised: 11 Nov 2021
Date Written: May 7, 2021
The role of the prosecutor is currently undergoing a major shift in a steadily increasing number of counties across the United States. Until the past five years or so, prosecutors were generally expected to go after those who commit crime with relentless zeal, sparing little concern for the scale and harshness of our carceral system. But this has recently begun to change. Several dozen district
attorneys (“DAs”) who plausibly describe themselves as reformers or, in many instances, as “progressive prosecutors” have now won elections by promising to shrink the vast footprint of America’s criminal justice system.
What should we make of these reformist prosecutors, and how do they fit within the larger movement to transform American criminal justice? Emily Bazelon wrestles with these questions in her new book, Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration. Through an engaging mix of investigative journalism centered on two specific prosecutions and incisive analysis of broader national trends, Bazelon makes the case that American prosecutors have misused their immense power to punish far too many people much too harshly and, further, that prosecutors must now exercise that same power differently to help reverse mass incarceration. Even more ambitiously, Bazelon argues that electing prosecutors who are serious about decarceration represents “the most promising means of reform . . . on the political landscape."
Charged is an important, insightful book. To be clear, I am not entirely convinced by the strongest version of Bazelon’s thesis: namely, that prosecutorial power is the main culprit behind mass incarceration as well as our best hope for escaping from it. It seems to me that other stakeholders besides prosecutors—legislatures, courts, police, defendants and their lawyers, community leaders, and more—also have key roles to play, both as a general matter and in the two prosecutions that Bazelon puts under the microscope. But the abundant discretionary power wielded by prosecutors unquestionably matters a great deal. Charged invites much-needed reflection on how prosecutors should exercise that power through its trenchant critique of conventional prosecutors and its rich exploration of their reformist brethren.
Keywords: prosecutors, mass incarceration, discretion, criminal justice reform
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