Thinking again about crime.

Author:Cooper, Matthew

A Colony in a Nation

by Chris Hayes

W.W. Norton, 256 pp.

When the citizens of Ferguson and other communities pushed back against the criminal justice system, MSNBC host Chris Hayes was on the scene. Now he has some thoughts worth considering.

Chris Hayes, host of the eponymous All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, published his first book in 2012, The Twilight of the Elites, which went after a big topic--the disconnect between American leadership and the people. It was smart, wise, and, as we saw in the last election, prescient.

In A Colony in a Nation, Hayes once again takes on an important subject: policing and incarceration. It is a mercifully slender book that is a breezy mix of coming-of-age memoir, reporter's notebook, and tour of the scholarship on the way justice is administered in the United States. It's a topic of deep interest to Hayes, who was on the ground for MSNBC in Ferguson during the troubles in that Missouri town, and in West Baltimore when another police-induced death led to rioting.

A veteran of the Nation and In These Times, Hayes starts with the premise that is now prevalent in liberal circles: the war on crime went too far. Too many Americans, especially African American men, are incarcerated. In poorer neighborhoods, police are too brutal, too much of an occupying force, too obsessed with enforcing petty ordinances (loitering, walking in the road) and making a fetish of the "order" part of "law and order." At its worst--as the Justice Department inquiry showed was the case in Ferguson--municipalities have come to depend on an obscene series of escalating fines as an important revenue stream.

The sharp increase of the prison population has roused the ire of some conservatives, too, such as Rand Paul and Grover Norquist--though not, notably, Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions. The roots of the problem are also on the conservative side. The title of Hayes's book comes from a speech by Richard Nixon, who returned to power in 1968 on the theme of law and order. Nixon crafted a vocabulary that, while ostensibly sympathetic to black aspirations--he lamented that ghettos were becoming colonies--also revved up the criminal justice machine in a way that would lead to the draconian anti-drug Rockefeller laws in New York State in the 1970s, the war on drugs in the Reagan '80s, and the crime bill of the Clinton '90s.

Raised in a middle-class Bronx neighborhood, the son of a Jesuit seminarian turned community organizer, Hayes is...

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