Book Review: Pleading Out

I was only a few pages in when Pleading Out: How Plea Bargaining Creates a Permanent Criminal Class made me angry. It wasn’t because of how Dan Canon wrote. It was because of what he wrote. In Bordenkircher v. Hayes, the Supreme Court held that prosecutors could, in effect, punish a defendant for asserting their right to a trial. Potter Stewart wrote that this was part of “any legitimate system which tolerates and encourages the negotiation of pleas.”

While legal systems in the United States do tolerate and encourage plea deals, a reasonable person can question the legitimacy of the system. That Paul Hayes received a life sentence for forging a $88.30 check calls the legitimacy of the system into question.

Canon spends the rest of the book making the case that the plea bargain system as practiced in the United States is not legitimate. It does not serve the interests of justice, but of power. “The American legal system,” he writes, “was designed by people in power as a tool to keep them in power whatever the cost.”

American exceptionalism

Plea bargains are rare in other countries. In the United States, 97% of convictions come from guilty pleas. Most of those are bargained. Why is that? Prior to the 1830s, plea bargains were rare in America. Attitudes started shifting when labor solidarity developed in the early industrial factories. Plea bargaining hid prosecution from the public eye, preventing scrutiny and revolt.

The expansion of federal crimes after Prohibition led to a need to process cases more efficiently. “What we have inherited is an amoral system of criminal proceedings; it cannot be called criminal justice. Expediency, not fairness, is the principal concern.”

It’s no coincidence that the United States has the highest incarceration rate and also the highest plea bargain rate. As Michelle Alexander explores in greater depth in The New Jim Crow, the legal system creates a permanent criminal underclass that has long-lasting effects.

Liberty and justice for some

The high volume of cases means that lawyers can’t keep up. Prosecutors can’t screen cases to drop the obviously bad ones. Worse, defense attorneys can’t mount vigorous defenses. Canon notes that in 15% of exonerations, the defendant gave a false confession. Thousands of innocent people are sitting in jail today because the police or prosecutors railroaded them into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit.

Because plea bargains are secretive, there’s no accountability. Wealthy defendants can work themselves into a sweet deal. Poor and middle-class defendants have to take what the prosecution offers. If they dare insist on a trial, they face persecution, not prosecution. Ask Paul Hayes. This does not benefit society.

So what do we do?

It doesn’t have to be this way. Canon writes about the decade when Alaska eliminated plea bargaining. The system adjusted. Prosecutors dropped cases they couldn’t—or shouldn’t—prove. Police got more careful with their investigations, knowing they’d actually be accountable. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an improvement.

Our current system doesn’t have to be our system forever. But it won’t change on it’s own. The first step is an informed populace. That’s why I’d recommend Pleading Out to anyone who cares about justice.

Other writing: January 2022

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Book review: The Address Book

How did your street get its name? When did we start numbering buildings? What does it mean to have an address—or to not have one? If any of these questions are interesting to you, you’ll appreciate The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Deirdre Mask.

I first heard about this book on the podcast “Every Little Thing“. Mask was a guest on a recent episode and shared the story of a project to name roads in rural West Virginia. This story was relevant to a memory I had long forgotten. Although I grew up on a named road, we didn’t have a numbered address until 911 service came to the area when I was in early elementary school. Prior to that, addresses were just box numbers on rural routes.

But newly-named and newly-numbered roads are not unique to the US. Mask explores how roads were named and renamed in different places over the centuries. Naming, of course, is an expression of power so names and numbers reflect the power at the time. Even today, there are millions of people who don’t have addresses, which increasingly cuts them off from what we understand as modern society.

I’d love a book of trivia about road names. The Address Book is not that. But it’s a fascinating look at the deeper meaning behind the act of naming.

Other writing: October 2021

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Book review: A Place to Start

Jim Grey is a pretty ordinary guy. So why bother reading stories of his life? Because he tells them so well.

I first came to know of Jim through his roads website. At some point, I started reading his blog “Down the Road“. I can’t recall how long it’s been now, but it’s probably the better part of a decade, if not from the beginning in 2007. Although we’ve never met, I’ve come to feel like I know him. Not just because we share similar interests and have mutual friends, but because the way he is able to write his personal stories in a way that welcome strangers in.

Jim does not share every detail; his writing respects the privacy of those in his life. Nonetheless, he is able to warmly and openly share his stories in a way that invites to sit down and listen. There is no false modesty, no exaggeration, and no self-importance. Just honest tales of his life shared because he wants to share them.

Down the Road started in 2007 as a way to process and recover from a rough time in his life. Jim’s new (okay, six months old at this point) book A Place to Start collects some of the posts from the first two years of the blog.

The book is split into three parts: stories, essays, and faith. The stories are personal tales from all eras of Jim’s life. Told in no discernible order, they’re more like a conversation than a timeline. The short essays section contains reflections on lessons Jim has learned over the years. The faith section contains a mix of his personal experiences with his Christian faith along with what I would call sermons.

Admittedly, the faith section was the least engaging part for me. Being religiously indifferent myself, I suppose I’m not inclined toward that kind of story. Nonetheless, I do enjoy the way he is able to discuss his faith in a way that does not feel like evangelism. He shares his beliefs and how they color his life; the reader is free to do with that what they will.

Since each chapter is a blog post, they’re all short. This makes A Place to Start a great book for when you can only read in quick bursts. Even if you’ve never heard of Jim Grey before, this book with worth a read.

A Place to Start is available in print and digital forms from Midnight Star Press. I received no compensation for this review.

Book review: Range

In many parts of society, we ask people to specialize early and go very deep. This is the path to excellence. In Range: why generalists triumph in a specialized world, David Epstein examines the role breadth plays. I should admit my bias up front: I am definitely a width person, not a depth person. So maybe I just agreed with this book because it reinforced the story I tell myself about my success.

But I do think there’s something to this. Throughout my career, I’ve found that the best colleagues are the ones who have academic or work experience outside of the tech industry. It’s not that they’re necessarily better technically, but they grasp the context much more easily. That becomes increasingly important when dealing with novel and poorly-defined problems.

I’ve long understood the value of coursework outside one’s major. Range helped me understand why that value exists. I sometimes heard at my alma mater that “we have a liberal arts school so we can produce well-rounded engineers.” Now I think perhaps we should have fewer major courses and more gen ed courses. (In addition to ethics classes which should be added to all curricula for separate reasons.)

In the context of the current time, with conspiracy theories enjoying a disturbing degree of acceptance, I find Epstein’s emphasis on amateurs a little concerning. Yes, novices sometimes make discoveries that elude the experts. Still, we must be careful not to replace “appeal to authority” with “appeal to lack of authority”.

I didn’t find Epstein’s writing style particularly compelling. This surprised me since he’s a journalist. I suppose books are a different beast. But the arguments were well-reasoned and supported by research. I would recommend this book to anyone thinking about their future career or seeking reinforcement of their past, seemingly-odd, changes in direction.

Other writing: November 2020

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