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Middle Grade Monday – Understanding Justice, a Book Review

Karen was gracious enough to pick up a copy of this ARC for me at ALA this summer. She knows how interested I am in the justice system, most especially in the juvenile justice system, and I imagine she hoped this would be right up my alley. It is, but not for the obvious reasons. If you’re read my Take 5 about ‘doing time’ you’ll know I’m alternately fascinated and repelled by the history of our juvenile justice system and the devastation being caused in the lives of the young people who are trapped in it. This book approaches the subject from a different angle – explaining the philosophy behind the current United States justice system and the events of history that have shaped it to its current state.

The book begins with an explanation of different approaches to maintaining an ordered society. It contrasts one that is heavily concerned with maintaining order and the safety of its citizens with one that is mainly concerned with establishing and protecting the freedom of its citizens. It then moves on to a series of court cases through which it explains such concepts as jurisdiction, the difference between civil and criminal laws, interpretation of the law by the courts, and penalties versus rehabilitation.

Several of the court cases described here stand out to me. The first is the ruling in Plessy VS Ferguson, which I’m sure we all had to memorize in our school civics courses, but I never really understood until reading the historical context as explained here. There is also a disturbing explanation of the phrase ‘rule of thumb’ and how it related to a man’s right to beat his wife or children. 

Throughout, the book uses intriguing court case examples and explains difficult concepts in a thoroughly approachable manner. I’m looking forward to having this to use with my students, especially those in 8th grade, who cover these concepts in social studies classes.I highly recommend it for use with students 4th grade and up.

Guilty?: Crime, Punishment, and the Changing Face of Justice by Teri Kanefield, from HMH Books for Young Readers, will be released on November 4, 2014. ISBN 978-0544148963

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