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Author Interview: 'Usual Cruelty'


Back to the U.S. now. In recent years, a lot of attention has turned to this country's criminal justice system - its racial inequities, its sentencing disparities. Now there's a new book that aims to widen the lens. It makes the provocative argument that just about every player in the criminal justice system is complicit in keeping those unfair systems in place not because these policies make the country safer but because they make money. It's called "Usual Cruelty: The Complicity Of Lawyers In The Criminal Injustice System." It's written by Alec Karakatsanis.

When we spoke, he argued that a key reason the criminal justice system is fundamentally unfair is the widespread practice of jailing people who can't afford to make bail or pay fines and fees.

ALEC KARAKATSANIS: One morning, I was in court watching in Montgomery, Ala., and I saw 67 human beings lined up in jail garb and shackles. Not one of them is accused of a crime. They were all there because they owed debt to the city. One by one, I watched people come up for the judge and beg for their freedom - say, Your Honor, I have - I'm a homeless veteran. Your Honor, I'm a mother of four children. Please don't put me back in jail. And the judge would say, unless you pay me a certain amount of money, you're going to jail.

And that morning, I went up into the jail, and I called people's names out, and I started meeting them. And I met Sharnalle Mitchell. Sharnalle Mitchell was showing me her court document. It said, pay us $2,807 or do 59 days in jail. And Sharnalle explained to me that in Montgomery, if you couldn't afford to pay what you owed on traffic tickets, you are kept in a jail cell at a rate of $50 a day off your debt.

She flipped over the document, and she was writing the days one through 59, trying desperately to figure out when she could get back to her kids. Because when the police raided her home because she owed debt, her 1-year-old was on her lap, and her 4-year-old was next to her. This system of mass incarceration is first and foremost a system of child and family separation.

Sharnalle was desperate to find out where her children were. She didn't know where they were, and she could get out and see them if she just had some money. And she explained to me that if you agreed to be a janitor in the jail, you got an extra $25 a day toward your debt in Montgomery. And so you get $75 a day, and so she was writing - some days, she was writing $75 and $75, and she was subtracting all of those numbers each day from the overall total, desperately trying to figure out when she'd get back to her babies.

Sharnalle that morning became my first client as a civil rights lawyer. And we sued the city of Montgomery, and we got Sharnalle out of jail. And on a single day a few weeks later, the city of Montgomery let everybody out of its jail because a federal court had said what they were doing is unconstitutional.

MARTIN: One of the connections that you make in your book is between that kind of system and the kinds of atrocities that we keep hearing about from time to time that happen in prisons. I know that in Mississippi, for example - Mississippi is now under sort of federal scrutiny because a number of prisoners have died in the jail. What is the connection that you see between the systems that you talk about and the kinds of physical violence that occurs in these prisons? Like, what do you think the connection is?

KARAKATSANIS: Our prisons and jails have become horrific places. When I was in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown talking to people about what happened in the Ferguson jail, I learned that Ferguson, like many other jails, doesn't offer people soap or toothbrushes or showers or sunlight or exercise or fresh air. That is standard practice in the 3,163 local jails all over the country.

We allow enormous brutality to be visited on people. And I think it's happening to those people and to their bodies because the public can't see it. And when you crowd in people in places that aren't designed for that - those sheer numbers of people, and you allow them to be treated inhumanely over a period of years - just watching that happen, it becomes normal to the people doing it.

And for all of us who work in the legal system, things that would shock us to the core normally out here in the everyday world just happen every single day. We've allowed ourselves to become desensitized to it.

MARTIN: One of the arguments that you make in the book - I mean, the title, "Usual Cruelty," is a play on the Eighth Amendment, which is a constitutional amendment barring cruel and unusual punishment. So what's your argument for why this is usual cruelty? Talk a little bit more about that.

KARAKATSANIS: One of the things that always fascinated me observing local courtrooms around the country is how normalized this everyday brutality has become. So, for example, my client Christy Dawn Varden, the first woman to challenge on equal protection and due process grounds the American money bail system in a generation, was arrested for shoplifting from Walmart. And Christy was told, you're going to be separated from your children and kept in this jail cell if you can't pay a few hundred dollars in money bond.

And Christy couldn't afford it, and so she was desperate. And she was in a jail cell, and she was crying uncontrollably. And to get her to stop crying, the local jail guards - they took her to a spot in the jail where there's no jail cameras, and they strapped her to a chair that they keep there. And they tase her body over and over and over again. We have allowed our jails to become grotesque torture chambers.

MARTIN: Well, what do you say to people who - though, who say that there has to be some system of accountability? There has to be some system that ensures that people go to court to go through the process of being judged for their alleged crimes. I mean, what's a better way?

KARAKATSANIS: There is not a shred of evidence that charging people money makes anybody safer and makes anybody come to court. All of the empirical evidence - and this is what we - we did a eight-day federal court trial in Harris County, Texas, and the chief district court judge of the Southern District of Texas found that there is not a single piece of evidence that money bail is effective either at getting people back to court or keeping the public safe. So there's no connection between charging people money and any of those valid interests that you mention.

MARTIN: All right. So this is an election year. Criminal justice reform - I know you don't like that word - but issues like mass incarceration, issues like money bail - they - those are things that are coming up on the campaign trail that people are talking about. What do you hope people take away from the book? If they take away one thing from the book, what do you hope it is?

KARAKATSANIS: The most useful thing I tried to do in the book was give people a list of several rules of thumb. How can you tell - when some candidate or some politician locally is proposing some kind of reform, how do you tell whether it's a genuine reform that would actually improve this system? Or how do you tell if it's a fake reform that's going to do nothing but re-perpetuate the same existing flaws in the system?

And so a couple of the most important rules of thumb are, No. 1, does the reform shrink the size of the punishment bureaucracy, or does it increase it? Meaning, are they proposing we put more money in the system for prosecutors and police officers and arrests and technology that's going to surveil people?

Or are they proposing to take money away from that punishment bureaucracy and reinvest in communities - into things like medical care, after-school programs, worker-owned cooperatives of people who've been formerly incarcerated - all of these kind of exciting, cutting-edge things that some communities are trying? That's No. 1.

No. 2 is, is the reform that this person is advocating removing and reducing their own power or control and giving it to communities? Or is it increasing their power and control and discretion? In the context of bail reform - just to give one example before we go - is the reform giving more discretion to judges and prosecutors and police to keep people in jail prior to trial? Or is it removing their discretion and ensuring that they release more and more people prior to trial?

Because that's what we care about bail reform for. We want presumptively innocent people to be back at home with their children, with their families. We need to give people a set of tools because there are a lot of people that have a lot of financial interests in confusing people about what's real reform and what's fake reform.

MARTIN: That's Alec Karakatsanis. He is the founder and executive director of the Civil Rights Corps. His book, "Usual Cruelty: The Complacency Of Lawyers In The Criminal Injustice System" (ph), is out now.

Alec Karakatsanis, thank you so much for talking to us.

KARAKATSANIS: Thank you so much.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this interview, and in a previous Web introduction, we incorrectly refer to the book Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System as Usual Cruelty: The Complacency of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System.

Updated on Feb. 12 In the previous correction, we incorrectly used the title Unusual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System. The full, correct title is Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 10, 2020 at 11:00 PM CST
In this interview, and in a previous Web introduction, we incorrectly refer to the book Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System as Usual Cruelty: The Complacency of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System. Updated on Feb. 12
In the previous correction, we incorrectly used the title Unusual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System. The full, correct title is Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System.
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