The American criminal justice system is supposed to be a contest between two equal adversaries, the prosecution and the defense, with judges ensuring a fair fight. That image does not match the reality in the courtroom, however. Much of the time, it is prosecutors more than judges who control the outcome of a case. They answer to almost no one and make most of the key decisions, from choosing the charge to setting bail to determining the plea bargain. They often decide who goes free and who goes to prison, even who lives and who dies. The system wasn’t designed for this kind of unchecked power, and in Charged, Emily Bazelon reveals how it is the underreported cause of enormous injustice—and the missing piece in the mass incarceration puzzle.
Charged follows the story of two young people caught up in the criminal justice system: Kevin, a twenty-year-old in Brooklyn who picked up his friend’s gun as the cops burst in and was charged with a serious violent felony, and Noura, a teenage girl in Memphis indicted for the murder of her mother. Bazelon tracks both cases, exploring every phase of the criminal justice process—from arrest and charging to trial and sentencing—and, with her trademark blend of deeply reported narrative, legal analysis, and investigative journalism, illustrates just how criminal prosecutions can go wrong and, more important, why they don’t have to.
Bazelon shows how prosecution in America is at a crossroads and details the damage overzealous prosecutors can do—and also the second chances they can extend, if they choose, to Kevin and Noura and so many others, allowing them to make things right in their own lives. She follows a wave of reform-minded D.A.s who have been elected in some of our biggest cities, as well as in rural areas in every region of the country, put in office to do nothing less than reinvent how their job is done. If they succeed, they can point the country toward a different and profoundly better future.
In Charged, Emily Bazelon mounts a major critique of the American criminal justice system—and tells the story of the movement for change.