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No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System

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No Equal Justice is the seminal work on race- and class-based double standards in criminal justice. Hailed as a “shocking and necessary book” by The Economist, it has become the standard reference point for anyone trying to understand the fundamental inequalities in the American legal system. The book, written by constitutional law scholar and civil liberties advocate Davi No Equal Justice is the seminal work on race- and class-based double standards in criminal justice. Hailed as a “shocking and necessary book” by The Economist, it has become the standard reference point for anyone trying to understand the fundamental inequalities in the American legal system. The book, written by constitutional law scholar and civil liberties advocate David Cole, was named the best nonfiction book of 1999 by the Boston Book Review and the best book on an issue of national policy by the American Political Science Association. No Equal Justice examines subjects ranging from police behavior and jury selection to sentencing, and argues that our system does not merely fail to live up to the promise of equality, but actively requires double standards to operate. Such disparities,Cole argues, allow the privileged to enjoy constitutional protections from police power without paying the costs associated with extending those protections across the board to minorities and the poor.


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No Equal Justice is the seminal work on race- and class-based double standards in criminal justice. Hailed as a “shocking and necessary book” by The Economist, it has become the standard reference point for anyone trying to understand the fundamental inequalities in the American legal system. The book, written by constitutional law scholar and civil liberties advocate Davi No Equal Justice is the seminal work on race- and class-based double standards in criminal justice. Hailed as a “shocking and necessary book” by The Economist, it has become the standard reference point for anyone trying to understand the fundamental inequalities in the American legal system. The book, written by constitutional law scholar and civil liberties advocate David Cole, was named the best nonfiction book of 1999 by the Boston Book Review and the best book on an issue of national policy by the American Political Science Association. No Equal Justice examines subjects ranging from police behavior and jury selection to sentencing, and argues that our system does not merely fail to live up to the promise of equality, but actively requires double standards to operate. Such disparities,Cole argues, allow the privileged to enjoy constitutional protections from police power without paying the costs associated with extending those protections across the board to minorities and the poor.

30 review for No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System

  1. 4 out of 5

    Naomi

    I first read excerpts of this book for my Crim class in law school where David Cole was the professor (before he went on to the ACLU) so obviously came in with a bias. That said, I thought he did a really solid job of presenting the structural racism inherent in our criminal justice system and the role, particularly of the Supreme Court, of reinforcing the spaces for discretion. The worst part is that while this book is "old" now, things have not changed so the message of hope for change now fee I first read excerpts of this book for my Crim class in law school where David Cole was the professor (before he went on to the ACLU) so obviously came in with a bias. That said, I thought he did a really solid job of presenting the structural racism inherent in our criminal justice system and the role, particularly of the Supreme Court, of reinforcing the spaces for discretion. The worst part is that while this book is "old" now, things have not changed so the message of hope for change now feels diluted.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jason

    In short: If you are a left-leaning lawyer, do not bother with this book. But if you are an educated non-lawyer, seriously consider reading it. **** There is much to praise in No Equal Justice, which chronicles the legal landscape of American criminal justice one topic at a time -- searches and seizures, right to counsel, the death penalty, etc. -- and details how policy, and especially law, that purports to be racially neutral is in effect racially unequal and, concomitantly, unfair to the poores In short: If you are a left-leaning lawyer, do not bother with this book. But if you are an educated non-lawyer, seriously consider reading it. **** There is much to praise in No Equal Justice, which chronicles the legal landscape of American criminal justice one topic at a time -- searches and seizures, right to counsel, the death penalty, etc. -- and details how policy, and especially law, that purports to be racially neutral is in effect racially unequal and, concomitantly, unfair to the poorest Americans. To left-leaning lawyers, like this reviewer, Professor Cole is preaching to the choir as he tells the tale of criminal justice law from the Warren Court to the present. If he offered more to such a reader -- and left-leaning lawyers are most certainly the typical readers of this book -- than reaffirmation of the reader's belief that numerous criminal justice cases have been wrongly decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in recent decades, he might present something new. But, to its typical readers, No Equal Justice does not offer something new. While Professor Cole is compelling in telling a tale of legal history and portraying the social costs of shifts in the law, his last chapter -- "Remedies" -- proffers nothing but fluff. Granted, I do not know how to remedy the problems Professor Cole discusses -- the problems of inequality in the American criminal justice system. But I am also not a law professor at a top law school purporting to feed the reader possible solutions. In the end, Professor Cole leaves readers of my ilk where they were in law school. Feeling that cases A-Z were wrongly decided. And sketching time machines in their case notes, hoping for the power to leap back years and change outcomes. What is unfortunate about what is good in Professor Cole's book is that, for educated non-lawyers, what is good here is likely eye-opening. And for such readers what Professor Cole provides -- a core understanding of the problems he addresses from a legal perspective -- is significantly informative. Professor Cole demystifies seminal cases that have had a profound impact on the American criminal justice system, largely in a manner educated non-lawyers will get. Still, even to these readers, Professor Cole simply presents another lens through which to view the problems that weigh down upon the American criminal justice system and select classes of American citizens. Nothing in the way of remotely concrete solutions. Laudable, but incomplete. And perhaps not accomplishing even this much, unless the book is brought to the attention of a broader readership.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    In the University of Chicago's World Beyond the Headlines lecture series (available by podcast), I heard David Cole discuss his book Less Safe, Less Free: The Failure of Pre-Emption in the War on Terror. He spoke very eloquently, so I looked up what other books he wrote. The title comes from a quote by Justice Hugo Black: "There can be no equal justice as long as the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has." In No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Jus In the University of Chicago's World Beyond the Headlines lecture series (available by podcast), I heard David Cole discuss his book Less Safe, Less Free: The Failure of Pre-Emption in the War on Terror. He spoke very eloquently, so I looked up what other books he wrote. The title comes from a quote by Justice Hugo Black: "There can be no equal justice as long as the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has." In No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System, David Cole argues not only that our criminal justice system is grossly disparate in how it treats members of different races and classes (though I don't know if even the most naive dare deny that claim), but furthermore that it deliberately exploits the inequality so that we, as a society, need not pay the entire costs of guaranteeing constitutional rights to everyone. He discusses searches with "consent" (the "driving while black" phenomenon), the deplorable state of public defense (where the rich can afford fancy lawyers to get them off), the system of jury selection (because while black people are summoned the jury duty, they can still be removed from service via preemptory strike), the unintended consequences of the war on drugs (in which the sentence for possessing crack cocaine is one hundred times as severe as the sentence for possessing powder cocaine, and a single mom can end up with ten years in prison for mailing a package for a friend that turned out to contain crack) and three-strikes policies (where third-strikers have nothing to lose when trying to elude police), and how our communities are being ravaged by our policy of mass incarceration (at the time the book was written, in the late nineties, 1 in 3 young black men were under police supervision).

  4. 4 out of 5

    Holli

    Cole’s book highlights the inequality (both racial and socioeconomic) within the American Criminal Justice System. His book demonstrates how pervasive race-and class-based double standards are in virtually every criminal justice setting (policing, jury selection, sentencing). He argues that our system depends on these double standards to operate, as they allow the privileged to enjoy constitutional protections, while keeping the minorities and the poor as an abundant criminal class.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    This is a difficult book for me to rate because I changed my mind several times about how I felt about it. The truth is that Cole is extremely biased and uses biased language, however he presents a realistic difficulty in our criminal justice system. One that needs to be addressed. However, his remedies are ridiculous in their Utopianism and therefore unrealistic expectations.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Lucy

    Absolutely phenomenal. Cole surveys key Supreme Court (and state court) decisions relating to American criminal justice one topic at a time (search and seizure; "right" to counsel; death penalty; jury roll, venire, and selection; etc). He effectively argues his thesis that while these laws are formally race-neutral (to appeal to our American sensibilities of equal justice/rights for all), the specific wording in key cases allows implementation to hit hardest racial minorities and low income Amer Absolutely phenomenal. Cole surveys key Supreme Court (and state court) decisions relating to American criminal justice one topic at a time (search and seizure; "right" to counsel; death penalty; jury roll, venire, and selection; etc). He effectively argues his thesis that while these laws are formally race-neutral (to appeal to our American sensibilities of equal justice/rights for all), the specific wording in key cases allows implementation to hit hardest racial minorities and low income Americans. I hesitate to write this when the subject matter was so grim/infuriating, but reading No Equal Justice was a joy. Unlike the typical academic non-fiction study with dry, repetitive prose, this slim text had solid prose and rigorously (and concisely) laid out arguments. The discussion of legal standards and court cases read more like math proofs than the typical fluffy, consciousness-raising think pieces. Read this book first for firm legal footing, then read The New Jim Crow (whose survey of the same legal topics is comparatively inadequate, but which provides a good chronology of the political underpinnings of the war on drugs and the effects of mass incarceration; the focus of these two books are different, so they complement each other well). Yes, this book is from 1999, so it doesn't cover the most recent 17 years, but most of the modern legal precedent for criminal justice was set in the late 20th century anyways, so it's really not that "outdated."

  7. 5 out of 5

    Meggs

    This is an extremely important book - one that I suggest all people curious about the American criminal justice system read. That said, there are some important topics missing from the data he presents. Namely, the sexism inherent within our system that disproportionately affects young men in American communities. While Cole discusses gender representation in jury venires, he neglects to discuss the stereotypes and biases that accompany crime committed by women and result in disproportionately l This is an extremely important book - one that I suggest all people curious about the American criminal justice system read. That said, there are some important topics missing from the data he presents. Namely, the sexism inherent within our system that disproportionately affects young men in American communities. While Cole discusses gender representation in jury venires, he neglects to discuss the stereotypes and biases that accompany crime committed by women and result in disproportionately lighter punishments for females compared to their male counterparts. Similar to how we must draw the line of constitutional protection fairly across race and class, we must do the same for gender and gender identity if we wish to see societal cleavages based on sex remedied in meaningful and significant ways. It’s discouraging how little progress has been made since this book was published in 1999. I would recommend that all politicians read this book and take special note of the final chapter on solutions and community-based alternatives to institutional corrections.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Gemini

    Holy hell, I don't even know where to begin. Although there is some legalize jargon that I am not really familiar with I find the things about the (in)justice system really appalling. I just find some of these stats incredible, specially considering that some of these things happened in the past few decades, not like 100 years ago. It's crazy to think how white privilege/white supremacy is really not going anywhere which is scary. The more I kept reading the more shocked I would become which the Holy hell, I don't even know where to begin. Although there is some legalize jargon that I am not really familiar with I find the things about the (in)justice system really appalling. I just find some of these stats incredible, specially considering that some of these things happened in the past few decades, not like 100 years ago. It's crazy to think how white privilege/white supremacy is really not going anywhere which is scary. The more I kept reading the more shocked I would become which then of course would just be enraging to think this is how the system works, really not in our favor. People don't realize how things are not equal at all, whether white, male, female, person of color. It's like there are certain rules for certain people. There are so many things that get discussed which make you open your eyes to how things really operate which is just unreal. What's worse is how it keeps happening in our society over & over again. I am going to thank Community Change for having this in their library or I probably would have never read it.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Tara Lynn

    One, if you're going to write a book that makes statments suggestive of the idea that your information is current and correct, have it peer reviewed. Two, if you're going to make statements about the American polity in a way that is supposed be objective, then your language should be objective. Liberal though I may be, I put books like this in the "Anne Coulter" pile of trash. Any piece of material that purports itself to be educational, has no business trying to teach any topic from such a deep One, if you're going to write a book that makes statments suggestive of the idea that your information is current and correct, have it peer reviewed. Two, if you're going to make statements about the American polity in a way that is supposed be objective, then your language should be objective. Liberal though I may be, I put books like this in the "Anne Coulter" pile of trash. Any piece of material that purports itself to be educational, has no business trying to teach any topic from such a deeply left wing bent. Just as Coulter's outlandish statements help fuel an entire right wing cause, so do books like this from liberals on the opposite side.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Annelies

    The three star rating is due to two factors: the charge by other reviewers that the information contained in this book is not up-to-date, and I am sincerely hoping that some of the positions of the supreme court have been changed since the time this was written, and secondly the fact that some of his arguments are contradicting themselves. Mr. Cole argues that juries are predominantly white, but cites the O.J. Simspon trial as a prime example of jury nullification.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Craig

    Cole's book is in many ways the primogenitor of Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow." This book is more geared towards law students, and spends a lot more time analyzing legal precedents than Alexander, who focuses more on statistics and anecdotes than Cole. The two books complement one another and overlap quite a bit, though I would still recommend reading both. Cole brings out points and references that Alexander does not, and vice versa.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Sam Newton

    I have to agree with other reviewers. This is a good book to explain a "leftist" perspective on the last couple of decades of US Supreme Court jurisprudence in regards to issues of race. The Court has not been open to claims of discrimination, and in fact, allows virtually all legal actors to "legally" discriminate against minorities.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Brad

    Great read, even if a little dated. Touches on many of the problems portions of our society face when coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Kaitlyn

    I thought this book was interesting but it was from a very liberal slant. I think he raises some interesting points but this is definitely not written from a neutral standpoint.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Cheri

    Interesting book that takes an important look at the issues of race and class in our American justice system.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ben

    This series is a great edition to the Law books that I have owned and or read. As most of you already know by my list of selected books, I'm a criminal justice major.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Levi

  18. 5 out of 5

    Frances

  19. 4 out of 5

    Anne Louise

  20. 4 out of 5

    Michael

  21. 4 out of 5

    Tory

  22. 4 out of 5

    Craig

  23. 4 out of 5

    Stevie Dunton

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mel

  25. 4 out of 5

    Liz

  26. 5 out of 5

    Megan

  27. 4 out of 5

    Matilda

  28. 4 out of 5

    Katy

  29. 4 out of 5

    Tanya Jane

  30. 4 out of 5

    Russell Kruse

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