The Seattle Clemency Project Book Club
In discussing criminal justice reform, sometimes the reasons why we care about these issues and why we work to create change can be best captured not by statistics or research papers, but by the stories that are shared in our community. Below are some of the most compelling books our SCP family has read, and these stories drive us to continue pushing forward in making a lasting positive impact in our society.
Just Mercy - Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson's story as an attorney for people on death row personalizes the widespread, deeply rooted, and easily overwhelming issue that exists in our criminal justice system. It portrays real experiences of some of the individuals that are affected by bias in law enforcement, the prevalence of false convictions, and punitive focused policies enacted in the past several decades. It is hard not see the criminal justice system as anything but broken after reading the compelling stories and testimonies that are presented in this memoir. It shows us we have a duty to not only acknowledge these problems, but to strive to change things so that we can achieve what we can proudly call 'Justice'.
For those who have an interest in criminal justice, this is a must read to help find your reasons for why you're doing what you want to do.
The New Jim Crow - Michelle Alexander
When someone tells you to do your research and to educate yourself about the criminal justice system and its relation to racial inequality, this book is a good starting point.
In one of the most educational books about why a vast criminal justice reform movement is necessary, Michelle Alexander highlights the devastating affects the "War on Drugs" had on pushing back the the social progress of the Civil Rights Movement. It is clear that there is racial bias when you simply look at the prison population demographics, but what many people are not knowledgable about is how we got to this point. Michelle points out how under the guise of 'tough on crime' politics, was the social and legal framework for the creation of a secondary-citizen status.
Tattoos on the Heart - Gregory Boyle
Tattoos on the heart tells the story of Father Gregory Boyle and his way of combatting a deeply rooted culture of violence seen in East LA's gang culture. This is a powerful and compelling narrative of how we forget that in the bloodshed and the violence, many of these individuals are at the end of the day still people with dreams and ambitions. Their personal stories are overshadowed by a gang culture that pressures them to do things that they don't necessarily want to do, but will do in order to retain a sense of belonging.
Fr. Gregory Boyle shows us how our compassion and our recognition of each others' humanness can be better than government ordered rehab or punishment to deterring further crime. This book tells the story of how Fr. Boyle created Homeboy Industries as a way of offering a way out of gang culture through jobs, bringing together members of different gangs to let them see that their differences are not so different after all.
Actual Innocence - Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, Jim Dwyer
Actual Innocence will show you the myths and common misconceptions that flood our consciousness regarding how convictions are made. It will challenge many of the things that you thought were common sense, rebut most of the cliche's and tropes of CSI type crime shows that you see.
False convictions are much more common than most people realize, and much of it is due to our own human error. How effective are our memories during traumatic events, and in light of that information, should eye-witness testimonies be given the weight that they are given in court? What types of sciences are legitimate for proving innocence or guilt? Those who practice prosecutorial misconduct rarely, if ever, are held accountable. This makes it inconsequential for those who do it and can lead to many unfair trials. This book will bring up many questions that you may not have considered before and is a great read.
Becoming Ms. Burton - Susan Burton & Cari Lynn
A compelling and inspiring story of Susan Burton, a woman who lived a life involved with the criminal justice system, and has seen first hand the devastating effects that it has on people. Its her story of how she has used those experiences to change the lives of many other formerly incarcerated women for the better.
Her book is the story of her powerful transformation from poverty, incarceration and addiction, to advocacy for a more humane justice system guided by compassion.
Writing my Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison - Shaka Senghor
This memoir is another example of how our worst deeds do not define our person. This book tells the story of Shaka Senghor, who grew up in a neighborhood struck with poverty, but had dreams of growing up to become a doctor. However, a tumultuous home led him to run away, to survive on the streets through drug dealing, and to his subsequent murder conviction when he was 19.
His 19 year incarceration is the story of redemption that he shares with us, and upon his release he uses his experience to mentor and guide other young men and women in similar circumstances. This story not only reinforces the idea that we are not defined by our worst deed, but also gives us pause to re-evaluate how we strive for justice in regards to how we treat the men and women that are sent to our prison system.