Ordinary Injustice , by writer and Stanford law graduate Amy Bach, is one of the best portrayals I’ve read of the everyday, mundane, and yet utterly paralyzing weaknesses of state criminal justice systems. It’s not about the hot murder trial of the week. It’s about the plea to a misdemeanor count for petty theft that destabilizes a single mom and her kids. As Anthony Lewis highlights in his review for the New York Review of Books , 47 million Americans have criminal records, many because of misdemeanor pleas that “can wreak havoc on a defendant’s life,” as Amy (whom I know) writes. Her rendition of havoc unfolding manages to be both substantive and dramatic - not an easy double trick to pull off.
I especially admire how Ordinary Justice resists the easy urge to single out for blame one of the usual suspects: a lazy prosecutor, overworked defense attorney, or careless judge. Instead, Amy shows how the repeat-player nature of a local courthouse is itself culpable. Because lawyers, judges, and court staff will be back the next day, each has a reason to look the other way when one of their number screws up, even if that person is a supposed adversary. It’s a system that often serves the people who collect a paycheck from it at the expense of defendants and victims. This is the book that will make you understand how a lawyer could be allowed to sleep through a death penalty trial or process hundreds of clients without knowing their names. Sobering, and important.