In “Charged,” a persuasive indictment of prosecutorial excess, Bazelon argues that the lawyers who work in the more than 2,000 prosecutors’ offices around the country — conducting investigations, filing criminal charges and trying cases (or, much more commonly, striking plea bargains) — bear much of the responsibility for over-incarceration, conviction of the innocent and other serious problems of the criminal justice system.
“We often think of prosecutors and defense lawyers as points of a triangle on the same plane, with the judge poised above them: equal contest, level playing field, neutral arbiter,” Bazelon writes. But this is a misconception. As the Brooklyn district attorney, Eric Gonzalez, puts it to her: “It’s all about discretion. Do you authorize the arrest, request bail, argue to keep them in jail or let them out, go all out on the charges or take a plea bargain? Prosecutors decide, especially, who gets a second chance.”
To show how prosecutorial power operates in the real world, Bazelon follows two young defendants through the system: Kevin (a pseudonym), a 20-year-old from the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn who is charged with illegal gun possession, and Noura Jackson, a teenager from Memphis who is accused of murdering her mother.
Their cases are very different — one involving a victimless crime, the other the most heinous crime of all — and so are the district attorneys. Kevin’s prosecutor is Gonzalez, an aspiring reformer and the first Latino to serve as Brooklyn’s district attorney, while Noura’s is Amy Weirich, a hard-charging attorney in the traditional law-and-order mold. Bazelon uses these contrasting cases to demonstrate that having the right (or wrong) prosecutor can make a huge difference — between justice tempered with mercy and grave injustice.
Bazelon tells the tales of Noura and Kevin in rich, novelistic prose, which at its best puts one in mind of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s book “Random Family” (2003), about a troubled family from the Bronx in the grip of the criminal justice system. Consider the opening to Noura’s story, the most gripping section of “Charged”: “The blood was everywhere. Spattered on the floor of the hallway, on the doorframe of the bedroom and on the bedposts. Soaked into the sheets and pillows, and covering the body splayed on the floor at the foot of the bed. Jennifer Jackson was naked. Her face was covered by a wastepaper basket. Her chest and torso and hands were slashed, the pale skin torn by the blade of a knife. She’d been stabbed a total of 50 times.”
Bazelon interweaves Kevin’s and Noura’s stories with a remarkable amount of academic research by law professors, criminologists and other social scientists. The endnotes, replete with charts and graphs, run to more than 50 pages and acknowledge intellectual debts to such thinkers as Angela J. Davis, Paul Butler, Michelle Alexander and William Stuntz. This combination of powerful reporting with painstaking research yields a comprehensive examination of the modern American criminal justice system that appeals to both the head and the heart. Read More
The first book in “Charged” grabs for the heart: It is a riveting page-turner about two criminal defendants and their prosecutors. The second one goes for the reader’s mind: It’s a lucid synthesis of the most important research on mass incarceration and an insightful analysis of the politics of law and order in the era of President Trump and Black Lives Matter.
In her narration of the two criminal cases, Bazelon earns her title as Yale Law School’s Truman Capote fellow for creative writing and law. Her prose is so engrossing that even though the defendants’ stories are woven into the other parts of the book, I skipped those sections on my first read because I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen next. Readers who enjoy police procedurals will be gripped by Bazelon’s new genre, the prosecutor procedural, which is even more suspenseful because prosecutors are the most powerful and the most unregulated participants in the U.S. legal system. Read More
Now the legal journalist and Times Magazine staff writer Emily Bazelon, in her book “Charged” (Random House), puts flesh and faces to John Pfaff’s statistical and largely abstract proposition. “Charged,” though far-reaching in purpose, is above all a study of two cases in which prosecutorial misconduct or overreach put two people through hell. She tells these stories in microscopic detail, analyzing the background of each bizarre stop along the infernal circle—why bail is so hard to get and why it exists at all; why public defenders are often so inadequate—in a way that allows the specific case stories to become general truths. Her book achieves what in-depth first-person reporting should: it humanizes the statistics, makes us aware that every courtroom involves the bureaucratic regimentation of an individual’s life. She has a good ear for talk, and a fine eye for detail; at one point she makes the slightly hallucinatory discovery that the recently elected Brooklyn D.A., Eric Gonzalez, chose his career path after reading Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” as a teen-ager—not an obvious book to point someone on a path toward public service. (He was fascinated not by the deep cynicism of Wolfe’s view but by the way that the D.A. in the novel is able, heroically, to even things up with a Master of the Universe—proof, again, that we find in books what we want to find in books.)
A staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, Bazelon offers us in-depth accounts of two contrasting cases that highlight the power of prosecutors to seal defendants’ fates. The first concerns Kevin, a 20-year-old from Brownsville in New York City, who was arrested when he tried to hide a friend’s gun from the police, making him liable to a range of “criminal possession of a weapon” charges and to lengthy terms of imprisonment. Unlucky in other respects, Kevin had the good fortune to be assigned a persistent, effective lawyer, courtesy of the Brooklyn Defender Services. She begs, cajoles, and eventually persuades an assistant district attorney (ADA) to take a chance on Kevin and send him to a program rather than to prison—though Kevin’s circumstances are such that he struggles to complete the program and more than once comes close to being incarcerated. The second tells the story of Noura, a young, middle-class woman from Memphis who was convicted of murdering her mother and who, many years later, was shown to have been wrongfully convicted by an overzealous prosecutor who withheld exculpatory evidence.
These real-life narratives give immediacy and human interest to Bazelon’s tour through the criminal process. Her journey introduces readers to hearings and charging processes; inequitable cash bail and extortionate bail bond companies; “gun court”; diversion programs; “offender-funded justice”; life inside a women’s prison; and assorted other hazards in the drawn-out ordeal that awaits defendants in the months and years following their arrest.
Bazelon is a reliable guide to crime-control politics as well as to criminal procedure. She explains why increased punishment is so often the political path of least resistance, why the system’s impacts are so racially patterned, and how—in a remarkable reversal that no one predicted—criminal violence has declined in recent years, making our cities safer and opening up opportunities for reform.
Bazelon’s call to action is not subtle. Its urgency grips the author and jumps off the page, from the opening reflection that “in time, the country’s embrace of mass incarceration . . . will come to seem as shameful as slavery does now,” to the closing thoughts: “Somewhere along the way, the balance of power between the prosecution, the defense, and the judiciary shifted. We have to readjust it. The stakes are so high—the well-being of so many communities and the trajectory of so many lives.” It is a book written to destroy your complacency, and it succeeds.
“The author makes a convincing argument that if there were a larger number of justice-seeking prosecutors, we could reduce incarceration by a substantial percentage in a nation overwhelmed by prison costs. In addition, individual lives would no longer be derailed by criminal charges that are unnecessarily severe or even downright false. Bazelon aims her book at nonlawyer voters as well as defense attorneys, judges, police officers, social workers, prison wardens, and others in the criminal justice system. A clear message that resonates throughout the book: Never confuse the law with common sense. The author narrates her impressively researched book primarily through two defendants… Throughout the two narratives, the author demonstrates occasional optimism due to the election of reform-minded prosecutors in a few cities. The appendix, ‘Twenty-One Principles for Twenty-First-Century Prosecutors,’ is also helpful. A vitally important new entry in the continued heated debate.”
Bazelon (Sticks and Stones, 2013), New York Times Magazine staff writer and cohost of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast, considers the heavy burden of prosecution in the U.S. and argues that prosecutors across the country wield too much power. Following, in particular, the stories of two young defendants—a Brooklyn man arrested for felony gun possession, and a Memphis woman charged with her mother’s murder—Bazelon examines how the decisions of district attorneys and their staffs determine the futures of those they prosecute. Bazelon unravels these two stories suspensefully over the course of this excellently paced book. In the process, she exposes a lack of oversight and a trail of cases in which prosecutors either misplaced or intentionally hid evidence, forcing readers to question whether justice is really being served. She presents hope in the form of a new way forward, offering insights into reform-minded campaigns from a new generation of lawyers and scholars who prize transparency and fairness in sentencing. Though her evidence is grounded in research and case law, Bazelon’s prose is refreshing, accessible, and bold. Fans of Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy, 2014) and Matthew Desmond (Evicted, 2016) will be rapt with attention and cheering on efforts to rebuild public trust with a prosecution system that aims “to offer mercy in equal measure to justice.”
—Annie Bostrom, Booklist, starred review
In this timely exploration, Bazelon, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, argues that “the unfettered power of prosecutors is the missing piece for explaining how the number of people incarcerated in the United States has quintupled since the 1980s.” Bazelon skillfully illustrates this idea by following the developments in two gripping cases with novelistic intensity. In the first, an old-school prosecutor’s win-at-any-cost philosophy and questionable ethical behavior results in the conviction of a young Tennessee woman charged with a brutal murder, which is unanimously overturned by an appellate court years later because of prosecutorial misconduct. The second features the opposite: under a policy intended to reduce incarceration rates developed by a progressive district attorney in Brooklyn, a young man facing a gun possession charge pursues diversion (a rehabilitation program) rather than a two-year minimum sentence. Bazelon adeptly explains the culture that drives traditional district attorneys and the philosophies of reform-minded district attorneys, then briefly delves into the difficulty of preventing prosecutorial misconduct, the inequities of a bail system that effectively criminalizes poverty, systemic racial disparities, the sociological arguments for diversion, and how severe mandatory sentences distort the criminal justice system. Then, with modest optimism, she presents a road map for the emerging reform movement. This is a powerful indictment of the traditional prosecution model.
Ms. Bazelon practices collaboration as capably as she advises it. In her appendix, which offers “Twenty-One Principles for Twenty-First Century Prosecutors,” she describes how she solicited feedback and revisions from multiple individuals and organizations when crafting her closing recommendations. Whereas many contemporary academic and pop nonfiction offerings provide concluding solutions that read more like a string of tweets, Ms. Bazelon’s coda underscores each “principle” with both specific recommendations and real-life examples of successful implementation.
Emphasis on “real.” If legal discussions have at times struck you as overly hypothetical, rest assured that Emily Bazelon is obsessed with real people, both those trapped within the criminal justice system and those seeking to reform it.
Praise for Sticks and Stones
“This authoritative and important book should not only be read by educators and parents alike, but should also be taught in law schools and journalism schools, should either survive.”
“Bullying isn’t new. But our attempts to respond to it are, as Bazelon explains in her richly detailed, thought-provoking book… Comprehensive in her reporting and balanced in her conclusions, Bazelon extracts from these stories useful lessons for young people, parents and principals alike.”
“…a humane and closely reported exploration of the way that hurtful power relationships play out in the contemporary public-school setting. As a parent herself, she brings clear, kind analysis to complex and upsetting circumstances.”
“In ‘Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy,’ journalist and editor Emily Bazelon brings a sure hand and investigative heft to her exploration of bullying, which, in the era of social media, includes both digital and old-fashioned physical cruelty.”
“Bazelon’s well-timed study of bullying is exactly the sort of thing an editor would’ve ordered up in the past couple of months, and she probably could’ve gotten away with turning in a rush job. But this is far more substantial: Bazelon—in part while reporting a long series of stories for Slate—logged a huge amount of time with three kids whose lives had been upended by schoolroom torturers, and we spend a lot of time seeing the complexity of their school and home lives. She does not stint on the psychological literature, but the result never feels dense with studies; it’s immersive storytelling with a sturdy base of science underneath, and draws its authority and power from both.”
—New York Magazine
“Thoughtful and moving, incisive and provocative, Sticks and Stones is essential reading for any educator trying to negotiate the minefield of bullying. Packed with valuable advice, the book brings a welcome dose of sanity to an often overheated national discussion.”
—Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed
“Bullying is misunderstood. Not all conflict between kids is bullying. It isn’t always clear who is the bully and who is the victim. Not all—or even most—kids are involved in bullying. And bullying isn’t the only factor in a child’s suicide, ever. Emily Bazelon, who wrote about the subject for Slate in 2010, here expands her reporting in an important, provocative book about what we can—and can’t—do about the problem.”
—The Boston Globe
“She is nonjudgmental in a generous rather than simply neutral way, and she culls as much pathos from the circumstances of bullies as from those of their victims. She identifies not only the sadism of abusive children, but also their sadness. She is a compassionate champion for justice in the domain of childhood’s essential unfairness.”
“By the book’s end, Bazelon had won me over to the idea that so long as we don’t use the concept of bullying to foreclose discussion of other problems, so long as we think not just about individual bullies but about social climate change, this too might join other public revolutions in how we view formerly privatized cruelties like sexual harassment and child abuse. Bazelon closes by calling for a newfound focus on teaching character, empathy, and respect. No matter what the latest concept of cruelty, isn’t that always the lesson?”
“Emily Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate, has written a series of stories about cyber-bullying over the past few years, including the award-winning three-part investigative piece about the death of Phoebe Prince, the fifteen-year-old girl who committed suicide in January of 2010, and the criminal prosecution of six teen-agers in connection with her death. In her scrupulously researched ‘Sticks and Stones,’ Bazelon continues to cut through the sensationalism that often surrounds reports about bullying. She explores different facets of the problem through the stories of people who’ve been involved first-hand, and makes a case for what can be done to limit meanness and abuse among young people in an age when the problem isn’t just confined to schools but is also “on our computer screens and phones for all to see.”
“Beautifully written and tenaciously reported, Sticks and Stones is a serious, important book that reads like a page-turner. Emily Bazelon is a gifted writer, and this powerful work is sure to place childhood bullying at the heart of the national conversation—right where it belongs.”
—Susan Cain, author of Quiet
“Emily Bazelon is doing the most honest, hard-hitting investigative work on bullying in America today. Sticks and Stones is a page-turner, combining compelling personal stories, rigorous reporting and practical advice for parents and educators. Read it: It’s essential.”
—Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out
“Finally! In remarkably clear and friendly prose, Emily Bazelon dives into a difficult, complex topic and emerges with a wise, deeply nuanced, and practical guide to a subject that has us all confused.”
—Wendy Mogel, Ph.D, bestselling author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee
“Emily Bazelon has become a leader in the discussion about how we should address bullying. Her book, Sticks and Stones, approaches the topic with an uncommon thoughtfulness and sobriety. She shows little interest in oversimplifying the problem and applies lawyerly and journalistic skepticism to a topic that badly needs clear, careful thinking. ”
“A nuanced approach to the epidemic of bullying in American schools… Bazelon surveys promising new approaches to dealing with bullying, and the appendix includes fact sheets and a resource guide. A convincing case against media hype and a premature rush to judgment.”
“Bazelon’s book is eminently readable; her research is thorough and even-handed; and her approach to a complicated, fraught issue is appropriately complex and multi-layered.”
“Emily Bazelon is a voice of authority on bullying… An antidote to the media frenzy surrounding this now heated issue, Bazelon’s even-handed, thorough, and affecting narrative provides insights and information about the kids, parents, educators, and courts dealing with psychological and physical bullying in schools, as well as insidious cyberbullying… Masterfully written, [this] book will increase understanding, awareness, and action.”
“…Bazelon’s book is well-researched and even-handed, recognizing that much of the hue and cry against modern American bullies stems from media-driven sensationalism. Bullying itself, she notes, is not actually on the rise. But modern technology can certainly make it worse, expanding schoolyard teasing into 24/7 torture.”
“In the era of social media, when taunts and bullying can become more insidious and damaging, Bazelon thoughtfully urges a fresh consideration of the nature and definition of bullying… In a courageous conclusion—courageous because it is idealistic and contrary to popular opinion—Bazelon advocates overcoming bullying by instilling character and empathy in our children, teaching them to see that people’s feelings are more important than status and that kindness should be a value that overrides all others.”
“Bazelon’s deep discussion provides a solid foundation for everyone to understand this subject better and offers valuable guidance to parents, as well as those involved in setting policies. Her style is easy to read, and she doggedly pursues realistic answers… she goes beyond the research and policy issues to offer helpful guidelines for parents and teens. Sticks and Stones ranks far above other books on this topic.”