The best criminal justice books

11 authors have picked their favorite books about criminal justice and why they recommend each book.

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Criminal Injustice

By Glenn McNair,

Book cover of Criminal Injustice: Slaves and Free Blacks in Georgia's Criminal Justice System

Of the many books that explore African-Americans’ experience in the South’s antebellum Criminal Justice System this work stands out.  In this comprehensive study of the criminal justice system of a slave state. Glenn McNair traces the evolution of Georgia’s legal culture by examining its use of slave codes and slave patrols, as well as presenting data on crimes prosecuted, trial procedures and practices, conviction rates, the appellate process, and punishment. Based on more than four hundred capital cases, McNair’s study deploys both narrative and quantitative analysis to get at both the theory and the reality of the criminal procedure for slaves in the century leading up to the Civil War.

Who am I?

I am a professor of history and Director of the Lawton M. Chiles Jr. Center for Florida History at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida. I am a specialist in Southern, social, criminal justice, and legal history. I am the author or co-author of seven books, including three that address criminal justice at the state and federal level. My articles and reviews on criminal justice history have appeared in the America Historical Review, American Journal of Legal History, Journal of Southern History, Florida Historical Quarterly, Florida Bar Journal, and Georgia Historical Quarterly.

I wrote...

A Rogue's Paradise: Crime and Punishment in Antebellum Florida, 1821-1861

By James M. Denham,

Book cover of A Rogue's Paradise: Crime and Punishment in Antebellum Florida, 1821-1861

What is my book about?

A Rogue’s Paradise paints a portrait of law-breaking and law enforcement on the Florida frontier. Using court records, government documents, newspapers, and personal papers, the book explores how crime affected ordinary Floridians - whites and blacks, perpetrators, victims, and enforcers. I contend that although the frontier determined the enforcement and administration of the law, the ethic of honor dominated human relationships. The narrative traces the growth and development of this sparsely settled region through its experience with crime and punishment.

Among the issues examined are Florida’s criminal code, its judicial and law enforcement officers, the accommodation of criminals in jails and courts, outlaw gangs, patterns of punishment, and the attitude of the public toward lawbreakers. Much of the story is told through the lives of those who participated in the Florida criminal justice system at all levels: criminal, sheriff, judge, jury member, and victim.

Worse Than Slavery

By David M. Oshinsky,

Book cover of Worse Than Slavery

One thing prisons purposely do not do is teach you anything about the history of prisons. If you want to do that, you’ll have to do it on your own—and Oshinsky is such a great start. His 1996 book details the roots of Parchman prison in Mississippi and draws a line from slavery to convict leasing to modern-day penal farms.

Who am I?

Now, I’m a journalist who covers prisons—but a decade ago I was in prison myself. I’d landed there on a heroin charge after years of struggling with addiction as I bumbled my way through college. Behind bars, I read voraciously, almost as if making up for all the assignments I’d left half-done during my drug years. As I slowly learned to rebuild and reinvent myself, I also learned about recovery and hope, and the reality of our nation’s carceral system really is. Hopefully, these books might help you learn those things, too.

I wrote...

Corrections in Ink: A Memoir

By Keri Blakinger,

Book cover of Corrections in Ink: A Memoir

What is my book about?

Growing up, Keri Blakinger threw herself into competitive figure skating with an all-consuming passion that led her to nationals. But when her skating career suddenly fell apart, that meant diving into self-destruction. For the next nine years, Keri ricocheted from one dark place to the next: living on the streets, selling drugs and sex, and shooting up. Then, on a cold day during her senior year, the police caught her walking down the street with a Tupperware full of heroin.

Her arrest made the front page of the local news and landed her behind bars for nearly two years. Along the way, she met women from all walks of life. Keri came to understand how broken the justice system is and who that brokenness hurts the most.

Breaking the Pendulum

By Philip Goodman, Joshua Page, Michelle Phelps

Book cover of Breaking the Pendulum: The Long Struggle Over Criminal Justice

Unlike my other recommendations, this book takes a longer historical view of the prison and also provides a more sociological framework for understanding trends in penal history, focusing on the prison but also its sister punishments like parole and probation. Breaking the Pendulum focuses on the full history of the prison in the United States, from its origins to now. But more importantly, it synthesizes the state-of-the-art knowledge from punishment studies about how to think about and understand punishment: points like recognizing geographical variation rather than focusing on the national picture and recognizing that even periods that seem to be fairly homogenous in their penal policies are actually periods with a lot of hidden debate.

From there, it moves away from the standard narrative of a pendulum swinging between punitive and rehabilitative or liberal and conservative approaches to punishment to a more accurate and mixed picture, and for thinking about…

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

I wrote...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

What is my book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system – the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier.

Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light anxieties and other challenges of nineteenth-century prison administration that helped embed our prison system as we know it today.

Locking Up Our Own

By James Forman Jr.,

Book cover of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America

This book is an excellent companion to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and adds some important nuance to the story of how the United States came to imprison a higher proportion of its population than any other nation on earth. Forman notes that many African Americans in communities afflicted by rising drug abuse and crime rates in the 1970s were desperate to solve these problems and advocated more law enforcement along with greater investments in schools, jobs, and housing to address the root causes of the crisis. Instead, they got only increasingly draconian laws and punishments, often passed with the support of middle-class Black people seeking to discipline poorer African Americans. Writing from his personal experience as a public defender in addition to historical research, Forman includes dozens of illuminating examples of how race and class interact at every level in the…

Who am I?

I’m a historian of the African American freedom struggle with more than two decades of experience researching and teaching on this topic. My work focuses especially on the connections between race and class and the ways Black people have fought for racial and economic justice in the twentieth century. I write books and articles that are accessible for general audiences and that help them to understand the historical origins of racism in the United States, the various forms it has taken, and the reasons why it has persisted into the present.

I wrote...

You Can't Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement

By Greta de Jong,

Book cover of You Can't Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement

What is my book about?

I look at how African Americans in the rural South continued their struggles for racial and economic justice after the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, which failed to do anything about mass unemployment and poverty caused by agricultural mechanization. Social justice activists pressured the federal government to pay attention to these problems and invest more in anti-poverty initiatives, while white supremacists blocked every effort to help displaced workers who were left without jobs, homes, or income. These conflicts helped shape the experiences of other Americans whose jobs were lost to deindustrialization and globalization later in the twentieth century, and their outcomes still affect our lives today.

Just Mercy (Adapted for Young Adults)

By Bryan Stevenson,

Book cover of Just Mercy (Adapted for Young Adults): A True Story of the Fight for Justice

A gripping collage of moving stories of the poor, the wrongly convicted, and the marginalized, and Bryan Stevenson’s efforts to fight for their freedom. In this compelling Young Adult edition, Stevenson engages readers with his riveting storytelling. The author, who won relief for dozens of condemned prisoners, makes complicated legal issues understandable for young people. I picked this book because I believe every student should read it to understand the American judicial system. Many will find Bryan Stevenson so inspiring that they want to follow in Stevenson’s footsteps.

Who am I?

I am an award-winning author who has written books for all ages and genres – a Young Adult historical novel, several works of non-fiction for middle school students, two picture books for children, an adult work of non-fiction, and an adult memoir. I love a great story, and, for each book, I target the audience I believe is best suited to my narrative. Several of my books were inspired by my mother’s story of childhood immigration as she fled Nazi Germany for America and the emotional legacy of that experience.

I wrote...

Is It Night or Day?: A Novel of Immigration and Survival, 1938-1942

By Fern Schumer Chapman,

Book cover of Is It Night or Day?: A Novel of Immigration and Survival, 1938-1942

What is my book about?

Civil Rights activist John Lewis has famously said: “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and redeem the soul of America.” What did he mean? Speak truth to power. Make a difference. Never give up. Acts large and small fall into Lewis’s philosophy of “making good trouble.” 

My mother, Edith, was an unaccompanied minor who fled Nazi Germany for America in 1938, and she falls into the category of never giving up. When she was only 12 years old, Edith traveled all by herself from her home in Germany to a place that seemed as foreign as the moon: Chicago, Illinois. My historical novel, Is It Night or Day?, a Junior Library Guild title, captures the story of the challenges many immigrants face as they make a new life in America. For my mother, simply surviving was an act of making good trouble.

The Myth of Overpunishment

By Barry Latzer,

Book cover of The Myth of Overpunishment: A Defense of the American Justice System and a Proposal to Reduce Incarceration While Protecting the Public

Is our criminal justice system too harsh or too lenient on crime? To answer this question, Barry Latzer, retired professor at John Jay, offers both facts and historical perspective in his history of punishment since colonial days. Latzer does not gloss over the historic racism and cruelty of policing in the U.S. but shows that today most people in prison are actually there for committing violent crimes, and that the new technology of “e-carceration” can further reduce prison populations while improving public safety.

Who am I?

I’m the author of two published novels and dozens of short stories, essays, and memoirs. I write about education, crime, and public safety, and I work to improve educational and career opportunities for young people in New York and other cities.

I wrote...

Juror Number 2: The Story of a Murder, the Agony of a Neighborhood

By Efrem Sigel,

Book cover of Juror Number 2: The Story of a Murder, the Agony of a Neighborhood

What is my book about?

I set out to tell what it’s like to be a juror in a murder trial. Instead, I wound up after the trial spending a year visiting schools, police precincts, housing projects, and community agencies in East Harlem to try to understand the crime that was the subject of the trial.

In the words of the review in Publishers Weekly, “Novelist Sigel (The Kermanshah Transfer) turns his sharp eye for detail to a beautifully written hybrid of true crime and memoir. After serving as a juror on a 2017 Manhattan murder trial, Sigel was moved to examine the societal ills that cause underprivileged youth in New York City to turn to selling drugs and joining gangs. True crime buffs and fans of memoirs will be enthralled by Sigel’s irresistible mix of clear reporting, empathy, and thoughtful examination of the link between poverty and violence.”   

We Do This 'Til We Free Us

By Mariame Kaba,

Book cover of We Do This 'Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice

The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 introduced many people to the idea of abolishing police and prisons. Mariame Kaba might be the most thoughtful abolitionist organizer. This book of essays is both daring and humble, forward-thinking, and rooted in the everyday lives of young Black and Brown people.

Using simple language to convey profound ideas, Kaba asks if the massive expenditures of money and violence in our criminal justice system actually bring satisfaction and healing to those who are victims of crime. She insists that abolition is about not just ending a failed institution for public safety but also about experimenting with how to create better ones that are based in community and democracy. It’s a book that teaches you how to hope.

Who am I?

I’ve been a socialist for my entire adult life and a wise-ass for even longer. As a writer I’ve found a way to combine these two passions, using humor to introduce complex economic and political ideas to a new audience, as well as poke fun at politicians, CEOs, and even myself and my fellow activists. Not all of the books on this list use humor the way I do, but they have all helped me keep my sunny disposition by giving me inspiration that the socialist cause is more dynamic and multifaceted than ever. 

I wrote...

Socialism....Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation

By Danny Katch,

Book cover of Socialism....Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation

What is my book about?

Socialism…Seriously brings together the two great Marxist traditions of Karl and Groucho to provide an entertaining and insightful introduction to what the socialist tradition has to say about democracy, economics, and the potential of human beings to be something more than being bomb-dropping, planet-destroying racist fools.

Danny Katch uses humor and imagination to take an unflinching look at the rising threats posed by climate change, billionaire oligarchs, and the far right—and makes a compelling case that a socialist world is both necessary and possible. This book is for people who want to take a deeper look at what socialism is… but maybe not that deep.

Just Mercy

By Bryan Stevenson,

Book cover of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

I met Bryan Stevenson through my daughter who took his class on the death penalty at NYU Law School. He has been called America’s Nelson Mandela for his work heading the Equal Justice Initiative. We interviewed him for our film project American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton. He is an inspiring speaker and indefatigable advocate for clients railroaded to death row – as both his book Just Mercy and the movie based on it reveal. Stevenson exhibits a similar passion for justice to that displayed by Movement lawyer Fay Stender, co-counsel with Charles Garry in the defense of Panther leader Huey Newton. Stevenson considers their accomplishments in that potentially explosive case a pivotal point in addressing systemic racism in American jury trials – though much work must still be done.   

Who am I?

I am a retired lawyer and judge with a long-held concern about access to justice, especially as we face the need for stepped-up activism to protect minority rights today. I first became fascinated by Fay Stender’s pioneering career as a board member of California Women Lawyers, which she helped found in 1974. I related to her passion for justice, which led me to research and write her biography and two books on “the trial of the century” of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton. That trial took place in my home city of Oakland over half a century ago, yet its focus on systemic racism remains just as important now.

I wrote...

Call Me Phaedra: The Life and Times of Movement Lawyer Fay Stender

By Lise Pearlman,

Book cover of Call Me Phaedra: The Life and Times of Movement Lawyer Fay Stender

What is my book about?

Call Me Phaedra provides an inside view of activism during the McCarthy Era, the Civil Rights Movement, Free Speech Era, the rise of black power, and the Women’s Rights Movement. It chronicles the extraordinary life and career of Fay Stender as a rare female criminal defense lawyer who championed black revolutionary clients and became a ground-breaking prisoners’ rights advocate. Her work both won her international acclaim as a top Movement lawyer and propelled her to a tragic end.

Stender’s saga will fascinate readers of all ages interested in the history of American activism and, particularly, women who challenged white-male monopoly power. Those working to change American society for the better today can draw valuable lessons from this award-winning biography and history book – the only published biography of Fay Stender.

Golden Gulag, 21

By Ruth Wilson Gilmore,

Book cover of Golden Gulag, 21: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California

Along with Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore is one of the major idea shapers and strategists of abolition in the 21st century. The Golden Gulag explains in rich detail why mass incarceration was a product of the crisis of late 20th-century capitalism. She explains why the failures of free-market capitalism, the rise of the power of finance, and the undermining of the welfare state, cast prisons, and jails as the tools to address the resulting structural poverty and racism in the U.S. Unlike the other books I have selected, Gilmore’s book is not an easy read. It should be read in small doses, with lots of notetaking and Google searching while being read. But in the end, the labor and the resulting enlightenment will be worth their weight in gold and then some. 

Who am I?

I've been a social justice activist all my life. In my younger years, I turned to violence to bring about liberation. That landed me a federal arrest warrant which I avoided for 27 years by living as a fugitive. I spent most of that time in southern Africa, joining freedom movements against apartheid and colonialism. Arrested and extradited to the U.S. in 2002 I spent 6 1/2 years in California prisons while observing the impact of mass incarceration. I vowed to direct my energy to end mass incarceration through grassroots organizing. Since then I've been a writer, researcher, and activist in my local community of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois as well as being partner and father to my two sons.

I wrote...

Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time

By James Kilgore,

Book cover of Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time

What is my book about?

Drawing on a growing body of literature and activism, Understanding Mass Incarceration describes competing theories of criminal justice—from rehabilitation to retribution, from restorative justice to justice reinvestment. In a lively, accessible style, author James Kilgore, who spent six years in prison himself, illuminates the difference between prisons and jails, probation and parole, laying out key concepts and policies such as the War on Drugs, broken windows policing, three-strikes sentencing, the school-to-prison pipeline, recidivism, and prison privatization. Informed by the crucial lenses of race and gender, he addresses issues typically omitted from the discussion: the rapidly increasing incarceration of women, Latinx folk, and transgender people; the growing imprisonment of immigrants; and the devastating impact of mass incarceration on communities.

The Prosecutor

By Nazir Afzal,

Book cover of The Prosecutor

We’ve all seen those movies about courtroom battles and a determined prosecutor, speaking up for innocent victims. In Nazir Afzal we have the real deal. Coming from a working-class, migrant family, he knows what it’s like for the powerless. As Chief Prosecutor he won milestone cases involving criminals, honour killings, domestic violence, human trafficking, and many others. This engrossing book takes us behind the scenes. Nazir Afzal is recognised as a man who changed British justice for the better. 

Who am I?

I’ve always loved books and reading, so it’s no surprise I’m an author and blogger. However, feeling strongly about justice and truth, I’ve also been active in the feminist and anti-racist movements. Additionally, I founded The Asian Women Writers Workshop (later known as the Asian Women Writers Collective), whose work has been archived by South Asian Diaspora Arts Archive (SADAA). I’ve been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at several British universities and am a member of PEN International. As a writer of colour (South-Asian heritage), I'm intrigued by the work of diverse writers, their interpretation and focus.  

I wrote...

The Coral Strand

By Ravinder Randhawa,

Book cover of The Coral Strand

What is my book about?

The story moves between modern Britain and the glamorous and turbulent world of 1940s Mumbai. Once a year, Sita, a young British/Asian woman, goes to spy on Emily and Champa, the ‘guardians’ she’d run away from and on whom she’d taken a daring revenge. However, this year the past has started to crack and heart-breaking secrets begin to seep out, revealing connections and a fight for survival in which taboos were broken, forbidden lines crossed, and a victim trapped. 

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