Radical Acts of Justice

How Ordinary People Are Dismantling Mass Incarceration

An original argument that the answer to mass incarceration lies not with experts and pundits, but with ordinary people taking extraordinary actions together—written by a leading authority on bail reform and social movements

“To pay money bail via an organized community bail fund is not just a form of protest, nor a simple act of charity, but rather something more powerful: a collective assertion of power over the decision to hold someone in a cage because of their poverty.” —from the introduction

A Ms. Magazine Most Anticipated Book

From reading books on mass incarceration, one might conclude that the way out of our overly punitive, racially disparate criminal system is to put things in the hands of experts, technocrats able to think their way out of the problem. But, as Jocelyn Simonson points out in her groundbreaking new book, the problems posed by the American carceral state are not just technical puzzles; they present profound moral questions for our time.

Radical Acts of Justice tells the stories of ordinary people joining together in collective acts of resistance: paying bail for a stranger, using social media to let the public know what everyday courtroom proceedings are like, making a video about someone’s life for a criminal court judge, presenting a budget proposal to the city council. When people join together to contest received ideas of justice and safety, they challenge the ideas that prosecutions and prisons make us safer; that public officials charged with maintaining “law and order” are carrying out the will of the people; and that justice requires putting people in cages. Through collective action, these groups live out new and more radical ideas of what justice can look like.

In a book that will be essential reading for those who believe our current systems of policing, criminal law, and prisons are untenable, Jocelyn Simonson shows how to shift power away from the elite actors at the front of the courtroom and toward the swelling collective in the back.


“By highlighting grassroots collective actions, [Radical Acts of Justice] presents a new perspective on what justice can look like and how ordinary people can reshape our criminal justice system.”
Brooklyn Eagle
“A deeply inspiring account of communities coming together to reclaim and reshape fundamental definitions of safety, justice, and the law itself. A lesson and a road map for organizers everywhere.”
—Baz Dreisinger, professor of English, John Jay College, founder of Prison-to-College Pipeline, and author of Incarceration Nations
“Jocelyn Simonson provides a lucid bird’s-eye view of the essential sites of organizing and collective work against the carceral state—bail funds, participatory defense hubs, people’s budgets and more—that have proliferated in the last decade. This book is indispensable for anyone trying to understand racial justice politics and criminal law reform today.”
—Amna Akbar, professor of law, Ohio State University
Radical Acts of Justice exposes grave injustices in the U.S. criminal legal system. Simonson uses compelling examples to challenge assumptions about what happens in court during a criminal proceeding. The common notion that, in the U.S., all accused are innocent until proven guilty is a radical departure from the truth. Contrary to the scripts of court TV dramas, in real life the accused are often protected only by community-based interventions. As readers follow Simonson through the courts, they will witness discrimination on public display. Some will concede that the system is beyond repair. A courageous and pragmatic reclamation of community power, Simonson speaks to an unjust system on behalf of we the people.”
—Vivian Nixon, writer in residence, Square One, Columbia University
“[An] impassioned account of grassroots responses to mass incarceration.”
Kirkus Reviews
“This sophisticated work of nonfiction presents an argument that the American carceral system can be resisted and broken down by regular folks, rather than experts and elites.”
“Drawing on case studies and firsthand experience, Simonson persuasively shows how engaging in ‘collective work’ enables communities to challenge a seemingly implacable system. This is a must-read for justice system reform advocates.”
Publishers Weekly
“An important, sophisticated, and often inspiring book about how the human beings most affected by our criminal system are challenging and changing it from within. With scholarly rigor, passion, and deep on-the-ground expertise, Simonson reveals a vibrant world of ongoing collective action and offers a rich new understanding of public safety.”
—Alexandra Natapoff, professor of law, Harvard Law School, and author of Punishment Without Crime
“Jocelyn Simonson is one of the great up-and-coming legal intellectuals. But this book is much more than something very smart and well-written. It is an exploration of an essential new shift in forms of participatory democracy, and everyone should read it and then get involved in their local community with these new forms of community empowerment—the significance of which she so expertly explains to a wider audience.”
—Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps and author of Usual Cruelty
“Simonson provides a much-needed description and analysis of the national movement to redefine safety and justice through grassroots collective action—showing us that even in a time of ‘law and order’ backlash, communities are winning concrete victories in dialing back the system of mass criminalization.”
—Alex S. Vitale, author of The End of Policing
“A well-written survey of groups pushing for change in the criminal justice system. . . . Criminal-reform advocates will enjoy this primer.”
Library Journal
“Simonson gives an overview of the guiding purpose, methods, and outcomes of grassroots movements challenging the criminal justice status quo.”

News and Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Read a review of Jocelyn Simonson’s “must-read” Radical Acts of Justice in Publishers Weekly.

Hammer and Hope

Read an excerpt from Radical Acts of Justice in Hammer and Hope about the power of participatory defense and the work of Community Defense of East Tennessee.

The Nation

Read an excerpt from Radical Acts of Justice in The Nation about how courtwatchers are shifting the power dynamics in courtrooms across the country.

Goodreads Reviews