Bill's Reviews > Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice

Let's Get Free by Paul Delano Butler
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Aug 15, 09

Read in August, 2009

As a former student of Professor Paul Butler, I was not surprised to find his book refreshing in its candor, raw in its emotion, and revolutionary in its outlook. At bottom, Professor Butler's analysis is grounded in the radical notion that the government should respect people's right to be secure in their persons and property, a right formerly enshrined in the Fourth Amendment. Even more fundamentally, he argues that we should re-embrace freedom in this country in ways that range from not incarcerating nonviolent offenders to decriminalizing drugs. Our prisons, he points out, have made our lives more dangerous by serving to indoctrinate nonviolent offenders in the ways of violent crime. Not only are we squandering lives that might otherwise be productive, but we are also creating a contempt for law not seen since Prohibition and extending police power in a manner not consistent with a free society.

Ironically, Butler points out that prosecutorial bullying coupled with the indiscriminate use of paid informants ("snitches") has radically undermined the rule of law. Indiscriminate prosecution leads to a fatalistic attitude in some communities that come to regard prosecution more as an inevitable misfortune than an avoidable sanction. Paid informants not only undermine community trust and generate false information, but they also allow some of the worst offenders to carry on a life of crime in the knowledge that the police will protect and excuse their paid informers.

As the book's title suggests, Butler derives a series of principles for approaching the problems of criminal justice that are derived from hip hop culture. No disrespect, but I am about as familiar with hip hop as I am with Russian folk dancing, which is to say, not very. Yet given the immediacy of a genre like hip hop on today's streets and among today's youth, it is all the more necessary to read books like Butler's that serve as a bridge to new ideas. Butler's ideas about selective noncooperation with the police may raise an eyebrow in some, but mostly they constitute standard advice for anyone on the wrong end of an inquiry by law enforcement: do not consent to a search, ask for a lawyer, say nothing more until you have one. Even Butler's signature advocacy of jury nullification in cases of non-violent drug offenses is hardly a notion that would shock James Madison.

Later in the book, Butler raises questions about the possible uses of technology in providing alternatives to mass incarceration. However, he does not attempt to answer them, much less address the broad implications of placing intrusive monitoring devices in the hands of the bullying police and prosecutors he so eloquently decries elsewhere. Such a discussion deserves at least a book of its own, preferably one that examines the commoditization of information technology as a counterweight to Big Brother.

Butler concludes the book with a series of suggestions for citizen action with which anyone who believes we can shape our culture by improving our environment should find themselves in immediate sympathy. While in some ways a pastiche of personal memoir, social analysis, legal primer, and citizen handbook, this book is a compelling read and a call to action for anyone who has ever had a moment's concern about crime or racial justice in America.
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