Saturday, October 31, 2009
The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. Paul Butler’s Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hip Theory of Justice makes an important contribution to the debate about the crime policies that have produced this result. Butler began his career as a federal prosecutor who believed that the best way to serve Washington, D.C’s low-income African-American community was to punish its law-breakers. His experiences — including being prosecuted for a crime himself — eventually led him to conclude that America incarcerates far too many nonviolent offenders, especially drug offenders. Let’s Get Free offers a set of reforms for reducing America’s reliance on prisons, and suggests that these changes are in the nation’s collective self-interest. This Review contrasts Butler’s prudential arguments against mass incarceration with the moral arguments advanced by critics such as Glenn Loury, who emphasize the disproportionate numbers of poor people and racial minorities in our prison population. Building on Butler’s approach, the Review identifies additional aspects of our criminal justice system — including aggressive policing of minority youth and criminogenic prison conditions — whose harms extend beyond the direct victims (young people and prisoners) and imperil us all.