Usual Cruelty

The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System

A “searing, searching, and eloquent” (Martha Minow, Harvard Law School) investigation into the role of the legal profession in perpetuating mass incarceration—now in an accessible paperback format from the award-winning civil rights lawyer

Usual Cruelty cuts to the core of what is critical to understand about our legal system, and about ourselves.” —Anthony D. Romero, executive director, ACLU

Alec 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, for which the legal system has never offered sufficient justification. Usual Cruelty offers a radical reconsideration of the American “injustice system” by someone who is actively—and wildly successfully—challenging it.

Hailed by luminaries from James Forman Jr. and Vanita Gupta to U.S. Circuit Judge Bernice Donald, and MacArthur Award–winning poet and attorney Reginald Dwayne Betts, Usual Cruelty offers a condemnation of the whole deplorable enterprise, starting with profound questions about the specific things our system chooses to criminalize (marijuana plants, low-level gambling, petty theft) versus those we don’t (tobacco plants, high-level gambling by bankers, massive wage theft by employers). It calls out a bail system that charges people money to go free despite the lack of any evidence this will make them more likely to show up in court or make anybody safer. And it explores the everyday brutality of our courts, prisons, and jails, and the ways in which the legal profession has allowed itself to become desensitized to the everyday pain these institutions inflict on our most vulnerable populations.

Now in an accessible paperback format, Usual Cruelty will cement Karakatsanis’s reputation as one of the most inspiring civil rights lawyers of our time.


“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
“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
“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
“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

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.

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Goodreads Reviews