The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With only about 4.5% of the world’s population, it holds about 20% of the world’s inmates. But that’s only the tip of the punishment iceberg. One in five Americans have a criminal record. And every day the assembly line of punishment keeps its steady pace. Many who enter the criminal justice system are never able to fully shake it, and even those who emerge, carry its scars.
Fear of crime and endless demands for punishment support an enforcement apparatus that distorts democracy, the economy, and our relationships with each other. Unequal enforcement of our laws leaves the poor and, particularly, African Americans underprotected and overpunished. Instead of making us safer, the current level of unending punishment undermines communities and children’s health and well-being. A criminal record reinforces inequality as it forecloses employment opportunities and depresses wages.
This book is both a comprehensive bird’s eye view of the contours of the criminal justice system, and a critical analysis of its impact on our society. It weaves high-profile accounts—including the conviction and later exoneration of the Central Park 5, Jens Soering’s decades-long effort to get out of prison alive, and Tina Bennis’s confrontation with the state that took her car because of her husband’s indecent behavior—together with data, history, and personal experiences-- to reveal an interconnected system driven by fear, money, power, and structural racism. The book also shows that despite these problems, change is possible. Scores of death row exonerations, and the cost of capital punishment, have decreased capital sentences by almost ninety percent in a quarter century. Despite the recent surge in executions of federal inmates, the death penalty itself is dying a slow death. Drug decriminalization and legalization are sweeping the country, promising to shrink the system’s expanse. Yet, efforts to undo the war on drugs seem to trigger promises to crack down on violent and sex offenders. Despite the horrific deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which brought millions into the streets in the middle of a pandemic, true police reform is caught in an ideological struggle. COVID-19 revealed vast racial inequities in healthcare and the economy. Yet, when it ravaged America’s prisons, which are disproportionately filled with people of color and the poor, the response remained muted. Early releases, even for the sick and elderly, still seemed unimaginable.
Nora Demleiter is a chaired law professor at Virginia’s Washington and Lee University, one of the nation’s top law schools. She has a national and international reputation in criminal justice reform work. Her extensive writing has focused especially on sentencing and the myriad consequences that flow from punishment.
She regularly presents her work at academic conferences and participates in panel discussions for the general public. She is frequently invited to speak at law schools and colleges around the country. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, , USA Today, The Conversation, The Hill, Huffington Post, L.A. Times, National Law Journal, and others. Outlets such as PRI, NPR, ProPublica, The Guardian, The Crime Report, and Vice Magazine have cited her and her work.
During her quarter century in the legal academy, she has served as dean of two law schools and taught at six US law schools. She has served held significant research fellowships in the United States and in Europe. She has been elected to the most prestigious legal organizations in the United States, including the American Bar Fellows and the American Law Institute, which has 4,500 members drawn from faculty, judges, and lawyers. Because of her scholarly writing about comparative law and European criminal justice systems, she has also been elected to the European Law Institute and the International Academy of Comparative Law.