University of Chicago Law Review

Article Title

On Prisoners, Politics, and the Administration of Criminal Justice: Professor Rachel Barkow


Sonja B. Starr


Professor Rachel Barkow has established herself as an indispensable voice in public and academic discourse on criminal justice reform. Beyond the very important contributions to the world of scholarship that earned her a well-deserved place in this “most-cited” list, she has also shaped policy directly (most notably as a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission from 2013 to 2018), as well as influenced the education of countless law students through her coauthorship of the leading criminal law casebook.1 She is also an expert on administrative law and on the separation of powers, and this shapes her distinct perspective on the way the criminal justice system works. Several of Barkow’s relatively early pieces on these topics are her most cited (unsurprisingly, as they have been available to cite for longer), but for reasons of space and my own lack of administrative-law expertise, I won’t focus this short piece on them.2 Rather, I will focus on Barkow’s most substantial recent intervention in criminal justice reform debates: her 2019 book, Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration.

My comments here serve as a miniature book review—but published two years belatedly and thus with the benefit of hind-sight. The world has changed more in this short time than anyone in 2019 could have expected, and some of the book’s arguments land differently today than they might have then. Still, the book remains essential reading, and most of its insights still hold. I will begin by praising its many strengths, even though I ultimately diverge from Barkow on a core argument of the book—that criminal justice policy should be institutionally shielded from politics and delegated in substantial part to expert bodies.