Quaker Universalist Voice

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Race and Criminal Law

A Book Review of Rachel Barkow, Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration (2019)

R. Barkow, Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration (2019) focuses on the criminal law challenges in the U.S., not the global challenges of criminal law. It is notable that the author reaches beyond description of the current U.S. criminal law system’s problems and offers four important reform elements for a sustainable future, even though the practical solutions offered are vague.

The book’s title is off focus.  The book does not focus on a cycle and is overbroad in implying that all or most federal and state prisoners are victims of politics. A more accurate title for this book would be “Several Recommendations for Improving U.S. Criminal Law and Public Accountability”.

Like most authors on this criminal law subject, this author offers no careful definition of “mass incarceration”. The term “mass incarceration” is code for a varied list of bad things, in the author’s view.  Large numbers of prisoners and racial distortions in the resulting prison demographic profiles are important parts of the problem, but these realities are poorly described as “mass incarceration.”

The author helpfully describes, and laments, the reduction of the federal and state executive branch roles in U.S. criminal law’s “second look” procedures for managing prosecutor crime charging, mitigating and correcting sentences, and mechanisms for checking overbroad criminal laws through clemency, parole, pardon, and compassionate leave.  The author offers no creative suggestions for management reform of the executive role in “second look” procedres, even through engagement of experts.

The author is very helpful to the reader in naming specific areas of criminal law for reform:

  • Data Collection: Systematic and sustainable collection and analysis of reliable data for assisting legislators for understanding U.S. criminal law practices;
  • Expert Roles: Engagement of expert agencies to supervise the reform of the federal and state criminal law statutes as a part of a permanent infrastructure of criminal law evolution and revision;
  • Prosecutor Accountability: Accountability mechanisms for prosecutors, with active court supervision; and
  • Defense-Experienced Judges: Increase in the number of judges with defense experience. 

The author is silent on any role or mechanisms for  monitoring judges, prosecutors, or prisons  by the nonprofit sector.

The book addresses general categories for reforms and recognizes the general need for sustainable, systemic mechanisms for providing continuing public accountability protections against distortions of the criminal law.  The book is silent on any systematic role for executive management in refining criminal sentences. The book is silent on any systematic reforming role for religious institutions.  The book is silent on the role of the nonprofit sector in any future infrastructure for maintaining an accountable criminal law system.  Regarding court participation in a movement to deinstitutionalize prisons, the author emphasizes the conservative culture of courts as a hopeless obstacle for significant sentencing and prosecutor accountability reforms. 

The book includes an index and endnotes, with particular, helpful focus on internet-available resources.

The author’s general suggestions for criminal law system reforms may lack specificity, but the book provides a template for analysis of criminal law systems in every culture and nation.  Criminal law systems are a common human challenge. Thinking in a systems way makes all the difference and is open to all.  This book is a good contribution to our universal effort.

Quakers: The book contains no reference to Quakers.

The Quakers have had a significant role in past criminal law reform, particularly in criminal sentencing and prison reform.  Quakers have much to answer for in the unanticipated and unmonitored consequences of that historic Quaker role. 


  • What role should we assign to religious organizations in criminal law administration processes and in reforming initiatives for the criminal law in the U.S.?
  • What leadership role should Quakers take among religious groups in reforming the criminal law processes in the U.S.? 
  • Is there something true, naïve, distorted, or false about Quaker theological understanding of the reality of criminal law and its practice related to Quaker testimonies?


R. Barkow, Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration (2019)

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