From THE ECONOMIST online
Robert Guest is the business editor of The Economist, based in London. Before this he was a correspondent in Washington, covering American news and politics. He was also the author of “Lexington”, the paper's opinion column on the United States, from July 2009 through May 2010 (which has its own blog). Previously he covered Africa for seven years, based in London and Johannesburg. Prior to joining The Economist he was the Tokyo correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, and before that a freelance writer based in South Korea. He is the author of “The Shackled Continent”, a book that tries to explain why Africa is so poor and how it could become less so. Here he recommends some books about crime and punishment in America, to accompany his cover story on the subject in the current issue.
You write that America's justice system is harsher than that of any other rich country. Too many acts are criminalised, laws are often confusingly vague and too many people are locked up for too long. As a result, roughly one in 100 American adults are behind bars. What book would you recommend that helps to explain what you call America's “long love affair with lock and key”?
There are several good ones. “Go directly to jail: The criminalisation of almost everything”, edited by Gene Healy, is a fine collection of essays about the trend towards jailing people for things you would not necessarily guess were crimes, such as technical violations of obscure environmental and corporate regulations. “In the Name of Justice”, edited by Tim Lynch, examines the legal thinking underpinning over-criminalisation. And “One Nation Under Arrest”, edited by Paul Rosenzweig and Brian Walsh, offers some gloriously colourful case studies.
A surge of crime in the 1970s led to a demand for tougher criminal sentences. Since no politician wants to seem soft on crime, sentencing laws have only grown tougher, and often rob judges of discretion in meting out punishment. Have you come across any authors who have suggested promising ways to reform America's justice system?
The best book I've come across is “When Brute Force Fails” by Mark Kleiman. It's an utterly convincing argument for making punishment swift and certain rather than severe. Professor Kleiman reckons that America can have half as much crime and half as many people behind bars simply by applying methods that have been shown to work. Only the political will is lacking.
Miscarriages of justice are great fodder for a memoir or thriller. Did you come across any good ones in your research?
“The Innocent Man” by John Grisham is excellent. It's a true story of a man who was nearly executed for a murder he did not commit. Mr Grisham is a better reporter than he is a novelist, in my view.
What was the last book you read for fun?
“Double Vision” by Pat Barker. It's about a war correspondent recovering from the trauma of witnessing so much horror, while also mourning a colleague who was killed in Afghanistan. Ms Barker's style is plain but powerful: she reminds me a little of Orwell. And one of the characters reminds me of a reporter friend of mine who was killed on the job, so I've found the book unusually moving.
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