Written by Peyton Paxton and George H. Watson, Carolina Academic Press, 2nd ed. (2019), 281 pp.
Reviewed by Art Beeler, Senior Lecturing Fellow at Duke Law and Adjunct Professor at North Carolina Central University
When I picked up "Why American Prisons Fail: How to Fix them Without Spending More Money (Maybe Less)," I had great expectations. As someone who has indicated that we over criminalize for years, I was hoping for more. This is not to say the book does not have merit, but for anyone deep into the weeds of corrections, it does not say a lot of new or innovative information. But let's discuss the issues which make this book worth reading.
The first chapter of the book does a good job of examining the reasons for mass incarceration. It examines many reasons for mass incarceration, even some reasons that most do not think to include, such as a theory regarding lead in the drinking water. The chapter also includes more well-known reasons, including the baby boom after WWII, the giving up on rehabilitation which blanketed the country for more than 40 years, the war on drugs and all that it means, mandatory minimums and the "get tough" on crime philosophies, which reached far and wide from sentencing to civil consequences of criminal convictions, to the abolishment of Pell Grants for inmate students, and more. While crime continued to decline, confinement continued to rise. The rate of incapacitation has only recently begun to decline, although crime has been on a steady decline since the 1990s. And for those remaining, prisons are disproportionally made up of people of color, with many more women being confined and a bimodal population between the young and the "older." Later in the review, we will discuss some additional reasons for over incapacitation such as lack of mens rea (intent), overlapping laws and overcriminalization. While all three are worthy of discussion, none of them really speak to a new way to reduce prison populations. The closing part of the chapter discusses how the "right" has championed reduced prison population and whether the measure of recidivism is the only way to determine success.
The next chapter illustrates the journey of co-author George H. Watson into confinement. Watson, a lawyer, was convicted of mortgage fraud. He was the lawyer who prepared closing documents for 11 of more than 40 properties which the government found that he and his co-conspirators committed fraud to make a profit. It is clear that Watson's co-conspirators knew what they were doing, but it does not appear that Watson had the intent to defraud the companies. He was a lawyer who had never been in trouble with the law and prepared documents to close properties. While Watson had no intent to break the law, all involved in criminal justice know that ignorance is not an excuse. His lawyer wisely suggested he plead guilty. A co-conspirator who took the case to trial ended up with a sentence of more than 20 years. As a lawyer, Watson was supposed to know better. I think this happens more than we know. I have a friend who just received five years' probation because he had taken a...