Crime and poverty are so frequently lumped together, as are race and crime, making a sort of trifecta of bad circumstances that can really hold a person back—or worse, as we’ve seen with so many cases of police violence. But it’s worse than that, argues Reuben Jonathan Miller in his new book Halfway Home: not only are people in poorer areas and demographics more likely to be arrested, but the justice system is also designed in such a way as to make the people within it and their families even poorer—and increasing recidivism as a result.
It’s spectacularly written, and thoroughly enraging.
This is one of the newest books on the list, placed at the top after hearing Miller speak so eloquently and movingly about it on Fresh Air. Miller is a sociologist, criminologist, social worker, and a former prison chaplain, as well as a professor at the University of Chicago—but he also grew up poor, in a bad neighborhood, with family instability, and Black. Both of his brothers have served lengthy sentences, and Miller himself was arrested when he was younger. It’s this combination of personal experience and years of empathetic and rigorous study that helps Halfway Home so effective.
His own experiences on multiple sides of the justice system would probably be enough to support his argument to some degree, but they end up supporting more analytical sources and interviews from a wide and diverse selection of the formerly incarcerated people he interviewed over a period of years in Chicago and Michigan. Many of their stories have common elements—most frequently the aforementioned condition of being poor and Black—and endings regrettably similar in their grimness. But through those common elements, Miller allows his subjects to shine. He allows them the humanity in telling their own stories that the justice system denied them. He allows them to be flawed human beings who made bad choices, and sometimes continue to make bad choices even when ostensibly given the opportunity to start fresh.
But they’re not allowed to start fresh, is a point that returns again and again, because the fragile system of society won’t let them. So frequently they committed crime or began using drugs as a reaction to their difficult life circumstances—trauma, poverty, abuse—and after losing years of their lives paying for that crime, are then barred from a whole host of opportunities and services such as jobs or housing because of their status as ex-cons. This near-impossibility of actually returning to law-abiding society primes people for failure, Miller argues, adding that due to this circular logic within the judicial system, prison is less a place for rehabilitation than it is for punishment. I’m from a very red state, so I know that’s something some people would be okay with, but the clarity with which Miller draws the discrimination within the judicial system (for example, a Black teen from a millionaire family has the same chance of ending up in prison as a white kid from a family making just $36,000 a year) makes this a convincing argument for human rights.
I enjoy me a good, thicc notes/sources section, but I rarely pay diligent attention to them—more often just turning to them when a specific fact or quote catches my eye. But with Halfway Home, I found myself reading with a finger stuck in the notes for quick flipping back and forth. Many of the notes are papers or books for further reading, but there are also many facts that give context, such as the one I shared in the previous paragraph, and even several paragraphs-long notes extrapolating on a point in excellent depth. I imagine they’ve been relegated to the notes section to not interrupt the organization or flow of the main narrative. But they, too, are excellent and eye-opening, providing nuance and verification to a subject that, at times, is almost unbelievably grim.
I foresee myself doing a lot of further reading after this, and Miller’s citations are a great place to start. In an era when we’re starting to really talk about race and crime and poverty, Halfway Home should be required reading.