ABOUT THIS BOOK
A law professor and former prosecutor reveals how inconsistent ideas about violence, enshrined in law, are at the root of the problems that plague our entire criminal justice system—from mass incarceration to police brutality.
We take for granted that some crimes are violent and others aren’t. But how do we decide what counts as a violent act? David Alan Sklansky argues that legal notions about violence—its definition, causes, and moral significance—are functions of political choices, not eternal truths. And these choices are central to failures of our criminal justice system.
The common distinction between violent and nonviolent acts, for example, played virtually no role in criminal law before the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet to this day, with more crimes than ever called “violent,” this distinction determines how we judge the seriousness of an offense, as well as the perpetrator’s debt and danger to society. Similarly, criminal law today treats violence as a pathology of individual character. But in other areas of law, including the procedural law that covers police conduct, the situational context of violence carries more weight. The result of these inconsistencies, and of society’s unique fear of violence since the 1960s, has been an application of law that reinforces inequities of race and class, undermining law’s legitimacy.
A Pattern of Violence shows that novel legal philosophies of violence have motivated mass incarceration, blunted efforts to hold police accountable, constrained responses to sexual assault and domestic abuse, pushed juvenile offenders into adult prisons, encouraged toleration of prison violence, and limited responses to mass shootings. Reforming legal notions of violence is therefore an essential step toward justice.
Timely and thoughtful, David Sklansky’s new book is a much-needed meditation on what violence is and how the law should respond to it.
-- James Forman Jr., Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Locking Up Our Own
A Pattern of Violence is a must-read for anyone who wants to radically rethink our understanding of justice. In this singular book, David Sklansky takes us into courtrooms across America grappling with the problem of violent crimes. As importantly, he explains how we’ve come to understand violence itself—morally, ethically, and historically.
-- Rachel Louise Snyder, author of No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us
A Pattern of Violence offers a fresh take on some of the most vexing issues of our times, including police brutality, mass incarceration, and sexual assault. David Sklansky’s bold and lucid analysis disrupts the old ways of understanding how the law deals with race, gender, and crime, and points to how we can get closer to real justice. If, in H. Rap Brown’s enduring phrase, ‘violence is as American as cherry pie,’ Sklansky has written one great American book about it.
-- Paul Butler, MSNBC legal analyst and author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men
A stunning book of enormous learning, experience, and compassion, explaining how the role of violence as an idea has formed the law’s impact on race, gender, and class inequality. The ambition of the book connects centrally to the project of reframing what criminal justice might become. Sklansky is bold yet sensible, and his insights are game-changing. I wish I had been able to write this book.
-- Jeannie Suk Gersen, author of At Home in the Law: How the Domestic Violence Revolution Is Transforming Privacy
This sharply argued and thoughtful book shows how the law simultaneously over-punishes some forms of violence while ignoring others—such as acts committed by law enforcement. Anyone interested in achieving real police reform or dismantling mass incarceration should read this book by one of our most insightful experts on crime and policing.
-- Rachel Barkow, author of Prisoners of Politics
This humane and sophisticated analysis breaks new ground in exploring how and why the U.S. criminal justice system needs to be reformed.
-- Publishers Weekly
Could not be more timely…Explores how confused, inconsistent, and often simply incorrect the law’s, and the public’s, views of violence are…An important reminder that politics are never immutable, even for something as emotional salient right now as violent behavior.
-- John F. Pfaff Law & Society Review
A timely contribution to our understanding of both violence as a concept and how the law should go about responding to violence…Offers a sweeping view of violence’s role in U.S. legal culture.
-- Benjamin Levin Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books