Cover image of "The New Jim Crow," a book the broken US criminal justice system.

Check out the news online, or pick up any newspaper, and you’ll find a confusing array of articles about a wide range of issues and personalities—and many of the topics change from day to day. It can be difficult to sort out what’s really important from all the trivia that Americans swallow with such gusto. I read books to give me perspective on the issues. Taking a step away from today’s news, I’ve found, helps me understand what’s really going on in my country. And much of what I’ve learned is deeply unsettling. One of the most troubling of the historical realities we deal with today is America’s broken criminal justice system.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

In recent years, a number of authors have explored the attitudes and social infrastructure that underpin today’s reality: racism, income inequality, mass incarceration, and a broken criminal justice system that from top to bottom is riddled with prejudice, incompetence, intolerance, inequality, and, all too often, institutionally condoned violence. If you read the six books I’ve listed below, you’ll find it difficult to arrive at any other conclusion.

This post was updated on August 14, 2023.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

A civil rights attorney reviews the tragic history of the War on Drugs and its nightmarish impact on communities of color.

The Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman

Some forty essays by many of America’s most prominent authors examine a century of the most significant constitutional cases litigated by the nation’s premier civil liberties organization.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The noted essayist for The Atlantic writes a letter to his fifteen-year-old son reviewing his own story growing up in a Baltimore ghetto and showing the implications for African-Americans today.

Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing, by Joe Domanick

A close observer of the Los Angeles Police Department reviews a quarter-century of often heroic efforts since the Rodney King riots of 1992 to reform the Department.

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy

An L.A.-based researcher who tracks homicides committed in the Los Angeles area writes about the perpetrators, victims, and the cops who become involved in them.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson

The founder of a Montgomery, Alabama-based nonprofit law firm relates the tragic story of one client sent to death row on transparently manufactured evidence and reviews the larger implications for America’s broken criminal justice system.

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