Book Report: Go Directly to Jail: The Criminalization of Almost Everything edited by Gene Healy (2004)

As some of you know, I recently bought this book on Amazon for like full price because its description indicated the book echoed themes I’ve raised before on this blog. And so it does.

Some people get a chill from horror novels. I’m working on Stephen King’s It, and a killer clown in the sewers bothers me less than The Three Billy Goats Gruff did back in the day. When I want to self-impose fear, I pick up a book like this.

The book runs 150 pages, which includes extensive end notes. It comprises an introduction and six essays. The essays do tend to focus on crimes that companies or more powerful people could commit–environmental crimes, medical crimes, violations of business laws. Of course, these sorts of crimes would certainly interest the contributors to the CATO Institute, who put this book together. Although I’m not planning to do any industrial dumping, the implications of these new classes of crimes frightened me enough when I realized that charges for these crimes can apply to the individual as well as the corporation if a prosecutor or law enforcement official wants them to do so. Black magick.

Two other essays in the book deal with:

  • Project Exile, which allowed for federal enforcement of gun law violations; although I started the essay disagreeing with the premise that Project Exile was bad (hey, how could it be bad to keep guns from felons?), the essay convinced me. The government’s goal is worthy, but its tactics are frightening. Spending federal money to hire federal prosecutors to prosecute essentially local crimes and do nothing else leads to creative, aggressive pursuit of the goal. High conviction rates don’t necessarily mean success; they could mean creative application of the process and law in pursuit of the goal.
  • Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the Byzantine set of documentation that dictates how federal judges must impose sentences based on complex computations established by an unelected commission. The essay explains how this came about and its effects, including creative fact-bargaining and prosecutors holding back evidence from the trial to present during sentencing to increase the perpetrator’s time.

The book didn’t touch too much on layering–the prosecution of the same crime at many levels of government–although it did mention it. Also, it didn’t touch on nonsense measures that outlaw things that offend vocal minorities, hate crimes, or the criminalization of non-criminal acts that criminals sometimes perform as precursor or part of another crime. Perhaps it’s just as well this book didn’t take on those topics; I’m having enough trouble sleeping as it is.

Tone of the book is reasoned essay, unlike stream-of-consciousness screeds you get out of popular broadcast journalists who write political books. These essays build cases and take their time to get to the conclusion. Many of them are actually condensed from longer pieces. So it’s not a quick read, but it’s a thoughtful book, and since it’s only 150 pages, it’s a good week of reading.

Now I’ve read the book, I just need to be an influential about the ideas presented.