Usual Cruelty

The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System

From an award-winning civil rights lawyer, a profound challenge to our society’s normalization of the caging of human beings, and the role of the legal profession in perpetuating it

“We do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual.” —George Eliot, Middlemarch

Alec Karakatsanis is interested in what we choose to punish. For example, it is a crime in most of America for poor people to wager in the streets over dice; dice-wagerers can be seized, searched, have their assets forfeited, and be locked in cages. It’s perfectly fine, by contrast, for people to wager over international currencies, mortgages, or the global supply of wheat; wheat-wagerers become names on the wings of hospitals and museums.

He is also troubled by how the legal system works when it is trying to punish people. The bail system, for example, is meant to ensure that people return for court dates. But it has morphed into a way to lock up poor people who have not been convicted of anything. He’s so concerned about this that he has personally sued court systems across the country, resulting in literally tens of thousands of people being released from jail when their money bail was found to be unconstitutional.

Karakatsanis doesn’t think people who have gone to law school, passed the bar, and sworn to uphold the Constitution should be complicit in the mass caging of human beings—an everyday brutality inflicted disproportionately on the bodies and minds of poor people and people of color and for which the legal system has never offered sufficient justification. Usual Cruelty is a profoundly radical reconsideration of the American “injustice system” by someone who is actively, wildly successfully, challenging it.


“Alec Karakatsanis is a leading voice in the legal struggle to dismantle mass incarceration, this century’s defining civil rights issue. What he says cannot be ignored.”
—James Forman, Jr., Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Locking Up Our Own
“There is no better way to understand vital and often successful challenges to the system, and to the dehumanization of individuals that permits it, than to read this searing, searching, and eloquent book by Alec Karakatsanis.”
—Martha Minow, former dean, Harvard Law School, and author of When Should Law Forgive?
Usual Cruelty offers a provocative indictment of the legal profession’s role in perpetuating a justice system rife with structural racism and indignity. With compassion and acuity, Karakatsanis lays bare the devastating harms of mass incarceration and the bureaucracy that sustains it. He exhorts the reader to think carefully about the gap between our constitutional ideals and the lived realities of communities—and what that says about our society and ourselves.”
—Vanita Gupta, president and CEO, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System, a provocative new book by Alec Karakatsanis, shines a searing light on the anachronism that is the American criminal justice system. He exposes the fractures, pitfalls and minefields of a system where every actor is potentially complicit in the ‘injustice’ outcome.”
—U.S. Circuit Judge Bernice Donald, Law360
“A fiery indictment of America’s criminal justice system [and a] provocative cri de coeur.”
Publishers Weekly
Usual Cruelty provides a new framework for evaluating whether politicians are pushing tweaks or true transformation.”
Texas Observer
“A devastating indictment of the legal profession by one of our most important young lawyers, Usual Cruelty cuts to the core of what is critical to understand about our legal system, and about ourselves. Every law student and lawyer should read this book.”
—Anthony D. Romero,  executive director, ACLU
“Alec Karakatsanis asks a difficult question: What do we do when defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, legislators, and our fellow citizens make the most profound of injustices possible? The question is a worthy one. If to be sworn to uphold the law is not enough, to read this book, too, is simply not enough. May action follow.”
—Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet, lawyer, and author of the poetry collection Felon
“Alec Karakatsanis puts “human caging” and “wealth-based detention” in America on trial.”
Harvard Magazine
Usual Cruelty lays out a compelling and damning argument that lawyers play a central role in rendering the criminal legal system unjust. . . . [Its] exposition of ‘the chasm between the law as it is written and the law as it is lived’ should be familiar to all lawyers, as should the pursuit of eliminating that chasm.”
“Passionately argued. . . . Karakatsanis sets out the moral and political philosophy that drives his work—that criminal law, and the manner in which it is selectively enforced, is a reflection of ‘power, racial bias, and economic self-interest.’ His vision is radical: a post-carceral society, in which imprisonment is ‘a narrowly tailored remedy of last resort.’”
The New Yorker
Usual Cruelty deserves to join the shortlist of books that have meaningfully changed our conversation about criminal punishment over the past ten years. . . . It paints the most accurate picture I have ever seen of the criminal punishment system and the way lawyers operate in and around it.”
Current Affairs

News and Reviews


Listen to an interview with Usual Cruelty author Alec Karakatsanis on NPR’s All Things Considered.


Read an excerpt from Usual Cruelty about the money bail system in Time magazine.


Read a review of Usual Cruelty in Slate.

Publishers Weekly

Read a review in Publishers Weekly.

Goodreads Reviews