Academic journal article Michigan Law Review

Books Have the Power to Shape Public Policy

Academic journal article Michigan Law Review

Books Have the Power to Shape Public Policy

Article excerpt


In our digital information age, news and ideas come at us constantly and from every direction-newspapers, cable television, podcasts, online media, and more. It can be difficult to keep up with the fleeting and ephemeral news of the day.

Books, on the other hand, provide a source of enduring ideas. Books contain the researched hypotheses, the well-developed theories, and the fully formed arguments that outlast the news and analysis of the moment, preserved for the ages on the written page, to be discussed, admired, criticized, or supplanted by generations to come.

And books about the law, like the ones reviewed in these pages, can spark ideas that lead lawyers and policymakers to consider new issues and think in new ways. Legal books are not merely academic musings, but vehicles of thought that can lead decisionmakers to develop programs and priorities that can shape public policy.

When I served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan during the Obama Administration, books frequently influenced the work of federal law enforcement, the Department of Justice, and its ninety-four U.S. Attorney's Offices around the country. I would hear about these books at conferences or in conversations with others in law enforcement, and the books became must-reads. Some books were more scholarly than others, but they each had great influence on decisionmakers.


One such book was The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer and former law professor.1 The fact that Alexander is married to one of our colleagues, Carter Stewart, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, probably helped the book gain attention among our group. Professor Alexander wrote about the disparate impact that the war on drugs has had on communities of color, effectively depriving minorities of their civil rights, such as the right to vote and serve on juries.

Although we did not all agree with every premise in the book, many of us who were career prosecutors found Alexander's arguments eye-opening, and these arguments caused us to question the wisdom of these tough-oncrime policies. First, it was worth considering the effectiveness of long prison sentences. Were lengthy sentences an effective deterrent or could the same result be achieved with shorter sentences? Were lengthy prison sentences consistent with the rehabilitation goals of incarceration, or were they just hardening inmates into becoming career criminals? In addition to effectiveness, the cost of lengthy prison sentences also raised issues. What was the dollar cost to taxpayers to incarcerate drug defendants for twenty years or life into old age, when incarceration becomes more expensive because of medical issues and when individuals are less likely to be violent? Could those resources be better used by putting more police officers on the street to ensure that justice were more swift and sure and public safety better protected? Could a portion of those funds be better spent on prevention and treatment programs? And finally, we needed to consider the other consequences of long prison sentences: What is the lasting cost to communities who lose their young men and father figures to decades in prison?

Alexander's book, along with other research and scholarship in the area of sentencing reform, led the Department of Justice to implement a program it called "Smart on Crime," borrowing the name of yet another book-this one by former California Attorney General and now-Senator Kamala Harris.2 In her book, Harris argues for using strategic approaches to reducing crime from both the supply and demand sides, based on her experience as a prosecutor. Embracing some of these ideas, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. launched DOJ's Smart on Crime program in August 2013 to address the monetary, social, and public safety costs of mass incarceration in America. …

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