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Charged: Overzealous Prosecutors, the Quest for Mercy, and the Fight to Transform Criminal Justice in America

4.32  ·  Rating details ·  1,176 ratings  ·  213 reviews
A renowned investigative journalist exposes the unchecked power of the prosecutor as a driving force in America's mass incarceration crisis, and also offers a way out.

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. But in practice, it is prosecutors who have
Hardcover, 448 pages
Published April 16th 2019 by Random House (first published April 9th 2019)
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Paula DeBoard
Add CHARGED to your criminal justice reform reading list, along with The New Jim Crow and Just Mercy (... and what else? Comment with suggestions for me).

There's a lot to unpack here, but Bazelon takes a look at a particular piece of a justice system that is leading to mass incarceration in unsustainable numbers: the role of prosecutors. Using two very different cases as a narrative thread, Bazelon exposes the reader to a system where winning (not compromise, not restitution, and not justice) is
David Wineberg
Jan 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Americans like to think their criminal justice system is the fairest in the world, that innocents can’t be proven guilty because of all the constitutional protections in the system. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Emily Bazelon found in Charged. Her latest book looks at the justice system at the prosecutor level. It is a family tree of branches, many of them diseased or rotten. Both prosecutors and defendants can find themselves on the wrong one at any time. It’s a fascinating tour, ...more
Disclaimer: ARC via the publisher and Netgalley.

The last time I did my civic duty of jury duty it was either the day after or day that Larry Krasner fired several lawyers for the DA’s office. It was an interesting day. I’m not sure why they didn’t just cancel us coming in.

I tell you this so you know that I live in one of the cities that Bazelon writes about in her new book.

According to the studies that Bazelon cites in her book, most Americans agree that the justice system needs to be reforme
Aug 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
"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, to a total of almost 2.2 million."

PHENOMENAL. Wow! Reading this made me so sad and frustrated for people like Kevin and Noura who are abused by prosecutors looking to bolster their resumes with convictions. This book will make you outraged at what we willingly call “justice” in this country.

Bazelon follows two cases, that of a young m
Robert Sheard
Apr 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
Using two stories, one about a Brooklyn teenager arrested on a questionable gun possession charge, and the other of a young Memphis woman accused of brutally murdering her own mother, Bazelon lays out a range of topics about America's broken criminal justice system. In the murder case, Bazelon focuses on prosecutorial misconduct and the impunity with which prosecutors in America now operate. And in the gun possession case, Bazelon shows how some progressive D.A.'s are trying to reform the system ...more
For fans of Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson, this is a look at the power of DAs and the varied experience of defendants depending upon the discretion of their respective DAs. It looks at two individuals: Kevin in New York and Norah in Tennessee - their cases, circumstances, and how they manage the process. Bazelon - an investigative journalist, lawyer, and podcast host - reports on criminal justice reform in a way that is interesting through these two people, but also has more general asi ...more
Darcia Helle
The American criminal justice system is a mess. This really is an indisputable fact. For nearly a half century we've been fighting a War on Drugs, which has only succeeded in putting more drugs on the streets. We run prisons for profit, filling them with young black males and people too poor to afford bail and/or attorneys. We run a barter system with plea bargains, rather than a justice system with trials by jury. Nothing about what we do is fair.

With 'Charged', Emily Bazelon highlights the job
May 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Bazelon does a great job of demonstrating the unchecked power of prosecutors in the American criminal justice system. She goes through the historical change that has led to mass incarceration and highlights the way that the DAs office can set a punitive culture that leads to long sentences or one that is more likely to lead to shorter terms and therapeutic responses.

She ends the book with a 21 point plan for progressive DAs to grow a culture of criminal justice reform that seems very hopeful. As
May 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This book, more than anything else I’ve consumed, made me particularly sympathetic to the US Second Amendment. In a way. :P

It’s also one of those books that looks into the brutal crime and punishment legacy of my childhood in the ’80s and ’90s, and the blockback and reform we are finally starting to see in the current day.

Bazelon states in her prologue that she’ll be following two people, Kevin and Noura, through their criminal charges and time in the justice system. They both offer a very speci
Tonstant Weader
May 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
Over a dozen years ago I was working on a report for a racial profiling campaign a coalition of organizations had organized. I came across a research study that looked at racial disparities in criminal justice from arrest to sentencing. I was surprised to see prosecutorial decisions, not overpolicing, identified as the most significant factor in racial disparities in incarceration. This sparked an unending interest in how we fight over-incarceration and the use of the criminal justice system as ...more
I know very little about the criminal justice system, and throughout, I found myself overwhelmed with how it does and does not work. Bazelon, though, explains these systems well and showcases how it is the system is set up and how Prosecutors have taken on an increasingly powerful role in it. Told primarily through two very different cases -- one of a young black man in a rough area of Brooklyn and one of a middle class white girl from Memphis -- the power of the prosecutors are shown in how the ...more
Karen Ashmore
Dec 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I am a big fan of Emily Bazelon. She is an excellent writer and writes about issues I am passionate about. I have always said if we are to reduce mass incarceration, We must start at the root cause - the D.A. This book focuses on the role of overzealous DAs and their abuse of power and cuddly relationship with cops.

She follows the cases of two young victims of an unjust criminal justice system, points out flaws in their prosecution while interweaving the stories of several reform minded DAs in
Christian Santos
Apr 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
It goes beyond adding a human voice to what so often gets labeled as “criminal”. It shows the distinction between political-action and translation into layers of judicial bureaucracy. As an individual that works in the judicial branch of local government, Bazelon has opened my perception on some of the rigmarole we do as law clerks.
Even if you’re not a progressive; the true-crime pace this book reads at, provides valuable insight into our local courts.
The author details a number of people whose lives have been wrecked by the criminal justice system in different ways. Excessive bail, wrongfully convicted and treatment in different ways. The topic is very interesting and I’ve listened to the author’s podcast and interviews on NPR. My problem is that the book isn’t written in a way that held my interest and struggled to read it through. I did but it was a chore.
Katie Bruell
Jul 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I wish I could give this 10 stars. This is a fascinating, and enraging and, ultimately, maybe hopeful picture of some of the biggest injustices in our "justice" system. I hope this gets a very wide audience.
Sep 24, 2019 rated it liked it
Chock full of detail displaying the guts of our "justice" system.
Cassie Gutman (happybooklovers)
excellent research, interviews, and explanations of cases and their outcomes, following two in particular with very different circumstances and how the prosecutorial system failed them.
Jul 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Charged is a well written, well researched, and much needed book about one of the most proactive forces in perpetuating the epidemic of mass incarceration in America – the unchecked power of prosecutors in the American judicial system. Bazelon does a great job in presenting how the system is rigged to keep defendants – particularly poor and minority defendants – in jail/prison and under the thumb of the judicial system. She assiduously deconstructs systemic problems with such as misuse the bail ...more
Sophie Rayton
Apr 26, 2019 rated it liked it
A painfully important book. I had to go slowly with this because I couldn't handle the injustice for long stretches of time. Why do humans suck so much sometimes?! I'm glad this journalist is advocating for change and getting the message out there.
May 28, 2019 rated it liked it
A nonfiction book about overzealous prosecutors and how our current system of law (and how it's being interpreted, due to convention) ends up sending people to jail who are either innocent are guilty of crimes far more minor than the punishment assigned.

The book highlights 2 case studies: one, a man named Kevin who "takes the fall" for a friend by claiming possession of a gun in the friend's apartment; and a girl named Noura who gets arrested for the murder of her mother, but is (apparently) inn
Will A
Jun 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: law
Interesting points about the unfair advantages of prosecutors over defences, with an account of people and organizations promoting a different way of doing the job, somewhat smothered by accounts of two individuals' cases which were covered in more depth than the purpose of the book demanded.

Prosecutors in most places: get to request bail way above what is necessary to return defendants to court, leaving them stuck in jail; choose which charges to press in an arbitrarily punitive way; demand a s
Mar 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a hard book to read, but a necessary one. Our system is broken and there's not much political will to fix it. People are going to continue to suffer injustice--all I can say is my hat's off to my public defense bar colleagues. You're doing the work of the angels.
Jun 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: race, crime, politics
If you want to understand criminal justice in the US, and the need for reform, you need to understand the role of prosecutors and the way the system is rigged. In the early 1970s, the northeast, midwest, and western US had incarceration rates comparable to the Nordics. After that, they skyrocketed.

Emily Bazelon explores the roots of our rigged system--and what might be done to change it--partly through the lens of two cases. Kevin (not his real name), was arrested for a gun possession charge in
Johanna C.
Jun 27, 2019 rated it did not like it
This book starts with a thesis: that the "unfettered power" of prosecutors is a problem that has played a significant role in mass incarceration. But the book goes on to present a completely different argument.
The argument goes like this: much of criminal law is bad policy; it criminalizes some behaviors that should not be crimes and it mandates sentences that are too harsh. But, Ms. Bazelon suggests, it's too hard to change these statutes. So, a shortcut to changing flawed criminal law is to e
If you could only read one book on criminal justice reform, this would be the one I'd recommend. (Maybe in conjunction with Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal and/or The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, but if it's just one book, this is the one.) Prosecutors have incredible, essentially unchecked power in the American justice system, which means the county/state/court a case is in has a maj ...more
Emilio III
Jun 05, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Charged is a book about the criminal justice system and mass incarceration. The author uses two separate cases to help illustrate her overall theme of criminal justice reform. Rather than look at the problem from a policy standpoint, author Emily Bazelon focuses on the role of the prosecutor.

The author chose two cases to focus on: one involving a weapons charge and the other a murder. As the author follows the two cases, the many faults and disparities of our broken criminal justice system are l
Jul 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020-audiobooks
I went back and forth so many times on this one trying to decide my thoughts. For the side the author was advocating in favor of, she did an excellent job. The research was thorough, and the arguments were thought provoking and convincing at times. She offered solutions to mass incarceration by making cost vs. benefit analysis, shown what types of penalties are most effective and articulated how recidivism rates can be lowered by keeping non-violent offenses free from astronomical fines and pris ...more
Jolene Gilbert-Bruno
Aug 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
Really important topic, but got bogged down in a few things places that were less narrative and more facts and figures. My favorite part of the book was that it didn’t just point out the MYRIAD issues in our criminal justice system. The author traced the history to pinpoint where and how things go awry and she outlined successful programs that have helped reform and rebuild the system. Plus everything is backed up by data, which bears out time and again that investing in diversion programs, drug ...more
Jan Reatherford
Jul 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a very disturbing account of the abuse of power by prosecutors that is widely accepted in the U.S. criminal justice system. It also points out the real danger of unintended consequences when a policy that might at first glance seem to be a good idea turns out disastrous in practice.
If you have ever said or thought “ I have nothing to fear because I’ve done nothing wrong” or “why did he/she run from the police if they didn’t do anything”, this book will make you seriously reconsider that
Matthew Green
Jul 20, 2020 rated it liked it
The subject matter is extremely important, and the personal stories are compelling, growing more so as the book progresses. However, Bazelon's writing seems at times incoherent. The subjects all mesh together, and she moves from topic to topic without giving a clear sense of how one leads to the next. The chapter breaks seemed almost arbitrary. I simply couldn't figure out what she was grouping together, so I found it hard to follow at times. I wish it were a more straightforward read, but even ...more
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Emily Bazelon is a senior editor at Slate, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, and the Truman Capote Fellow for Creative Writing and Law at Yale Law School

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27 likes · 15 comments
“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 trajectories of so many lives. Public safety depends on our collective faith in fairness and our view of the law as legitimate.” 2 likes
“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,” 1 likes
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