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Staff Picks: Books

Fighting for a Safe Harbor

Some say that prostitution is a “victimless crime,” because presumably everyone involved participates willingly. Rachel Lloyd, in Girls Like Us, demonstrates that many girls and young women recruited and trafficked into the commercial sex industry are clearly victims of the system.

Lloyd, the executive director of GEMS, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, was once a victim of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE.) She was eventually able to escape, through the support of a caring church community and some adults—surrogate parents, in essence-- who reached out to her, offering her a chance for educational and professional success, beyond the life she knew.

In Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World where Girls are not for Sale, an Activist Finds her Calling and Heals Herself, Lloyd breaks it all down: how the neglect and abuse most girls experience prior to exploitation sets them up to become victims of CSE; the methods pimps use to keep the girls from leaving; the stigma that surrounds girls, once they’ve become commercially sexually exploited. She also describes in detail what factors must be present to support someone leaving and successfully thriving, after living ‘in the life.’

Lloyd, along with several of the girls served by GEMS, successfully persuaded the New York State legislature to enact the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act, which aims to protect –rather than prosecute—children subjected to sex trafficking.


Girls like us: fighting for a world where girls are not for sale an activist finds her calling and heals herself

the influences on our Free Will

It's always been a big philosophical question whether our choices really are "free." If science tells us that all events have a necessary cause given a set of initial conditions, then how could anything be free? If you can predict my behavior by looking at my brain a few minutes beforehand, how is that free? If an all-knowing God knows what I'm going to do next, how is that free? If we are the "slaves of our passions" (Hume), rather than guided by Reason, how are we free?

This book sheds light on the debate by talking about how our legal system depends on and argues about this stuff all the time. The difference between a legal and illegal contract, the difference between murder and manslaughter, between sex and rape, has everything to do with whether the people "freely" chose something. The new health care debate is over choice. It has everything to do with "personal responsibility" as well (e.g. do poor people choose to be poor? our answer depends on whether we think they are "responsible" for there condition or not).

I loved Greenfields' discussion of court cases, but readers will also enjoy his grasp of brain science, culture, and our capitalist market--all things that influence and constrain our choices. Examples:

Bikini effect: show men a bikini and they will buy. In fact, show people an attractive person and they will treat them better, give them more tips, not send them to prison, think they’re smarter, etc.

Priming or “mental contamination”: in one study, students were asked whether they were happy. If they were first “primed” by asking them something depressing, happiness fell. Other students were asked how many countries in Africa? If they spun a wheel with numbers it affect their answer. When African Americans were asked about their race before a test, they did worse (negative stereotypes probably seeped in). President Bush put a subliminal word “RATS” in one of his commercials about Gore.

Context: A company was not selling their $275 dollar bread maker. They created another one for double the price, and the same $275 dollar one doubled in sales.

Memory problems: they way we remember events will affect choices we make about similar events. If you make the ending of a colonoscopy seem pleasant by leaving the probe in for 20 seconds longer, they are more willing to return for screenings.

The whole point of the book, however, is not to depress us, but simply to say that knowing what influences our choice is half the battle. Which, like most things, reminds me of the Matrix trilogy. The Matrix argues (in the words of the Oracle) that free will doesn't consist in the fact that we could have chose differently (sorry Neo, it's all set in stone); but rather free will consists in our ability to understand why we chose this or that. Know thyself; live a reflective life. This is sorta what Greenfield is saying. What's also not depressing is that influence is not coercion--in other words, you can influence me all you want, but in the end I get the last laugh, I stand alone with my stoic decisions.

Other books: The Art of Choosing, Nudge, Blink, The Impulse Factor, U-Turn, and The Paradox of Choice.


the myth of choice

MLK Day: how far have we gone?

Michelle Alexander thinks not that far (not as far as most people think). Her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, offers a sweeping critique of the criminal justice system as a new form of institutional racism. The core argument is two findings: (1) white people do drugs as much as black people, but (2) black people are virtually the only people getting busted for it. Although she certainly thinks we have gone far in some respects, this book cannot be silenced.

Youtube "michelle alexander the new jim crow" to see a good Q and A about the book.


the new jim crow

history of criminal justice in Michigan

While browsing the second floor reference books today, I stumbled upon this amazing book, History of Michigan Law, which is a collection of articles on various aspects of Michigan law. The chapter on the history of criminal justice in Michigan was enlightening in the following ways:

  • substantitive law (list of crimes and punishements) [links to current MI penal code] has not changed much since the 1800's; although many new crimes have been added and amended, most crimes remain unclear, and are left to the courts to interpret. A "model penal code" was attempted a couple times, and failed.
  • Michigan was the first English-speaking government to ban the death penalty. wow.
  • Michigan gave poor criminals the right to a defense and appeal before the U.S. Surpreme Court did.
  • In 2001, our indigent defense system was ranked 49th in the nation (=bad).
  • Around the eighties, we had very severe minimum mandatory sentencing laws.
  • In 2004, we followed the U.S. Supreme Court by adopting the "good faith exception" to the exclusionary rule; which gives police a certain exception when illegally searching and seizing. (interesting point to remember: States can give citizens more rights than the U.S. Constitution, but not less.)

In sum, the author described this history as a constant "balancing act," between preventing and punishing crime, and giving criminals and alleged criminals fair treatment. It is social, legal, and political.


The History of Michigan Law

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness argues that African American men have been  disproportionately sent to prison due to the "War on Drugs," even though black men do not use drugs, or deal drugs, at a higher rate than white men [books on drug abuse]. Furthermore, the book argues that because being labeled a felon can exclude a person from voting, housing, health care, and public benefits, that this situation is analogous to the Jim Crow era (segregation). This is a large claim to make (the author thought it was crazy when she first encountered it), and this is a very hard, depressing, serious book to read, but it is well written--it is a barrage of statistics, pleas, arguments, history, and explanations. Alexander does not devote much ink on solving the problem, but perhaps she's planning a sequel?

Here's a good Q and A session by author, explaining the book.

For books on African American prisoners, click here. On criminal justice generally, here.


New Jim Crow

People are Reading the Constitution

The Law Library has free copies of the United States Constitution, which, I'm happy to say, have lately been flying off the shelves. In fact, there seems to be a revived interest in our most cherished founding document, mostly known for its magnificent "add-ons" (the Bill of Rights). Whether this interest comes from new political issues or new social problems, we should all think about what the Constitution means at some point. It defined the birth of our nation; it set the conditions for the "American experiment"; it starts with the word "we." Martin Luther King called it a "check" that needs "cashing," a "promissory note" that needs to be performed:

"When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (read here).

Go to for commentary, great historical notes, and full text. Or drop by the Law Library and read our books on Constitutional Civil Rights, or First Amendment Law, or The State and Religion.


The Constitution of the United States of America


Before you Rent...

It's the time of year when many college students are looking to rent. When entering into any legal situation, a basic understanding of your rights and obligations is your best protection. And with these awesome books by Nolo, it is very easy, interesting, and up-to-date. Learning before is always better than after some dispute comes along.

This book goes over the basic rights that tenants have in relationship to the lease and the landlord. Is this an illegal lease provision? Can the landlord raise my rent? How much can the security deposit be? What does the law say about discrimination? What happens if I end my lease? Can a landlord change my locks? How does the eviction process go?

Although this book is not a specific discussion of the law in Michigan, it does have an appendix in the back that references to various state laws. For much more information, come visit the Law Library.


Renters' Rights: The Basics

How the States Got Their Shapes

The History Channel has really been outdoing themselves with new and fun programming.  Some of my favorites are Food Tech, American Pickers, and Pawn StarsFrom these websites, you can watch previous episodes or learn about the program in more detail.

One of the shows I caught the other night (since baseball season has not monopolized the TV quite yet) was How the States Got Their Shapes.  The stories behind many of our state's boundaries are quite fascinating and noteworthy.  Beyond the geographic obviousness of things like the Great Lakes or the Gulf of Mexico, the state shape legacy often revolves around money and politics--often including a war or conflict of some sort.  The belief in slavery (or lack thereof) carried far into the West and determined the straight, horizontal lined borders of many states.  Even major rivers such as the Mississippi River don't automatically create a border.  The "boot toe" part of Louisiana crosses right over the Big Muddy, for example. 

If you missed the show on state shapes, you can pick up a book of the same name here at the library.  Each state is its own chapter chock full of maps and stories that help provide insight into some of the weird things we either don't realize or take for granted. For instance, what if half of your town in is Canada and your Uncle George lives on the other side of town?  Plan on a couple hours of passport, border patrol time!


How the States Got Their Shapes